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"Alarming exploitation" of workers in Qatar: Amnesty

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty holds up a report titled "The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction
Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty holds up a report titled "The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction

By Amena Bakr and Brian Homewood

(Reuters) - Qatar's construction industry is rife with abuse of migrant workers who are "treated like cattle" and live in squalid accommodation, Amnesty International said on Sunday, calling on world soccer's governing body to help address the situation.

Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup, and the human rights organization asked FIFA to work with the Qatari authorities to stamp out abuses of workers who mainly come from South Asia.

"Our findings indicate an alarming level of exploitation in the construction sector in Qatar," said Amnesty International's secretary-general, Salil Shetty.

"FIFA has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup," he said.

"It is simply inexcusable in one of the richest countries in the world that so many migrant workers are being ruthlessly exploited, deprived of their pay and left struggling to survive.

"Construction companies and the Qatari authorities alike are failing migrant workers. Employers in Qatar have displayed an appalling disregard for the basic human rights of migrant workers," Shetty said.

An unnamed source at Qatar's foreign ministry told the state news agency QNA that the Gulf state "attaches great importance to the promotion and protection of human rights".

The source said the government had on October 3 appointed the international law firm DLA Piper to conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the issue of migrant worker abuse.

He said DLA Piper had been asked to include Amnesty's report in its review and investigate its findings. There was no mention of when the law company's investigation would be complete.

Britain's Guardian newspaper and the International Trade Union Confederation have also delivered scathing reports on the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar.

The London-based group said it had interviewed about 210 migrant workers in the construction industry during two visits to Qatar in October 2012 and March 2013.

It also held meetings with 22 companies involved in construction projects and met government representatives on more than a dozen occasions. The report said abuses included "non-payment of wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions and shocking standards of accommodation".

CONSTRUCTION WORKERS

Earlier this month a U.N. official called on Qatar to abolish the kafala, or sponsorship system, used by many Gulf Arab states, under which employees cannot change jobs or leave the country without the permission of their sponsors.

Many sponsors, often labor supply firms or wealthy Qataris who provide workers to businesses for profit, confiscate the passports of guest workers for the duration of their contracts.

Shetty said Qatar had not promised to scrap kafala. "We have met with the prime minister, labor minister and other officials and they all have not denied that there is a problem but they haven't made any commitment and this is what we need," he said.

However, the ministry had taken a positive step last week by recruiting more labor inspectors, Shetty said.

Amnesty said its researchers had met dozens of construction workers who had been prevented from leaving the country for many months by their employers.

In one case, Nepalese workers employed by a company delivering critical supplies to a construction project associated with FIFA's planned headquarters for the World Cup said they were "treated like cattle", the report said.

They complained they were working up to 12 hours per day and seven days a week even during Qatar's summer heat.

James Lynch, Amnesty's researcher on Gulf migrants' rights, told a news conference in Doha that a worker would have to pay 600 riyals ($165) to pursue a grievance through local courts, a fee many could not afford.

Researchers also found migrant workers living in squalid, overcrowded accommodation with no air-conditioning, exposed to overflowing sewage and uncovered septic tanks.

"Researchers witnessed 11 men signing papers in front of government officials falsely confirming that they had received their wages, in order to get their passports back to leave Qatar," Amnesty said.

FIFA said respect for human rights was part of all of its activities. "It is FIFA's aim that the host countries of our flagship event ensure healthy, safe and dignified working conditions for all - nationals and foreigners, including construction workers - involved in the preparation of the event," it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Brian Homewood in Berne and Amena Bakr in Doha; Editing by Ed Osmond, William Maclean and Alistair Lyon)

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