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Construction companies failing to protect migrant workers in Qatar and UAE: Report

Workers 'ill-informed, anxious and unprepared' to deal with coronavirus, UK-based group says
Construction workers at Qatar's Lusail Stadium, about 20km north of capital Doha, on 20 December 2019 (AFP/File photo)

Construction companies in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are failing to protect migrant workers during the coronavirus pandemic, a new report has revealed.

The UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) said in a report on Thursday that it had documented a myriad of problems with the way firms in the two Gulf countries have handled the safety of migrant construction workers during the pandemic. 

"We are deeply concerned that many global construction companies are not acting decisively to protect their migrant workforce in the Gulf, from both the disease and economic hardship if they become infected," said Marti Flacks, the deputy director of the BHRRC. 

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Ninety percent of Qatar's 2.75 million residents are foreigners, many of them from poor developing countries working on projects linked to the 2022 World Cup. 

BHRRC said the construction workers in Qatar and the UAE were continuing to live in "tightly packed, often unsanitary, labour camps" that create conditions "perfect for the spread of Covid-19".

"Cramped worker accommodation and construction sites mean social distancing is impossible," the report found.

Of the seven companies responding to the BHRRC survey, none had plans to increase the size of workers' accommodations or to protect them adequately on construction sites - which remain active, despite the rapidly spreading pandemic. 

Last week, following reports of such conditions, Qatari authorities mandated a reduction in the number of people allowed to live in such spaces. 

'Ill-informed, anxious and unprepared'

Last month, an outbreak among construction workers at a labour camp in Qatar prompted a swift lockdown of thousands of workers, including those on infrastructure projects linked to the 2022 World Cup.

"This lockdown has led to claims the labour camps have become a 'virtual prison' and raised concerns for worker welfare," the report said. "Workers do not have access to necessary sanitation, are not being given clear information regarding the outbreak, and are being laid off without wages or a promise of re-hiring."

The report also said that little has been done to protect migrant workers from disproportionate economic hardship. 

BHRRC found that of the seven companies surveyed, only three said workers that needed to go into quarantine because of the coronavirus would be entitled to their full wages.

"While some construction companies are taking welcome steps to protect the health and safety of workers during the crisis, many others are not, or are not being transparent about the steps they are taking," Flacks said. 

This has left workers "ill-informed, anxious and unprepared" to deal with the pandemic.