World Cup

Working conditions on construction sites in Qatar: the role of Bouygues and Vinci

by Rachel Knaebel

After Brazil this year, it will be Qatar’s turn to host football’s greatest ritual in 2022. Giant construction projects - stadiums, metros, highways, and hotels - are already adding up. French businesses Bouygues and Vinci have won huge contracts in the country. The problem? Qatar has come under heavy fire from the International Labor Organization, international unions, and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch because of the deplorable working conditions and other human rights violations against migrant laborers. 1,200 workers have already died on Qatar’s construction sites since 2010. For their part, Bouygues and Vinci claim they are not involved in such violations and that they trying to ‘improve things’.

This article was originally published in French. Translation: Egor Lazebnik.

Thursday, June 12, the game between Brazil and Croatia kicked off the festivities in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. At least 8 workers have died on construction sites for stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure. Which is already a lot. Come 2022, it will be Qatar’s turn to organize the event. In the tiny Gulf emirate, construction is booming. And so is the death rate of migrant workers. According to the numbers collected by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), no less than 1,200 workers have already died on construction sites in Qatar since the emirate first won the right to host the event, in 2010. Most of them died in work accidents, or of heart attacks caused by terrible working and living conditions in a country where summer temperatures can rise above 40 degrees Celsius. If nothing is done between now and 2022, 4,000 workers could lose their lives before the kickoff of the World Cup [1].

1.4 million workers reduced to quasi-slavery

In Brazil, there is freedom of association, a large union movement. We have also been able to introduce strong standards for working conditions on World Cup construction sites. But in Qatar, there are no rights," complains Gilles Letort, a representative of the French union CGT and a member of Building and Wood Worker’s International (BWI). Qatar has about 1.4 million foreign workers within its territory. Most are Nepalese, Indian, or Filipino. They represent the majority of the population in a country that is not much bigger than Corsica, home to a little more than 2 million people. These workers are the major contributing force to the emirate’s economic growth. They have almost no rights. “Fundamental rights and freedoms do not exist for workers in Qatar whether for poor migrant workers or highly paid professional expatriates,” denounces the International Trade Union Confederation in a March 2014 report. “Foreign workers are enslaved – owned by employers who hold the power of recruitment, total control over wages and conditions of employment, the authority to issue ID cards (not having an ID card can lead to prison) and the ability to refuse a change of employment or an exit visa to leave the country. This is known as the kafala system.

Under the kafala system, all foreign workers are required to have a Qatari sponsor to be able to enter Qatar. It is this ‘sponsor’, usually the employer, who decides if the worker has the right to change jobs or even to leave the emirate. This system keeps workers from protesting anything whatsoever, whether late salaries, working or living conditions, and even not being allowed to go home.

In 90% of cases, workers’ passports are confiscated

For its report, ITUC visited 10 ‘camps’ where thousands of immigrant workers live. The camps are located to the East and South of Doha, the Qatari capital. The report highlights about 12 examples of unacceptable situations, which are presented in detail as examples of the larger problem. Among these examples is that of a 34-year-old Filipino worker, employed on construction sites. When he arrived in Doha in 2011 through a recruitment agency, his passport was immediately taken away from him. He finds himself working on the construction site of a residential complex, working 60 hours per week, and paid 260 dollars per month instead of the 330 dollars per month he was promised. His employer does not provide him with safety equipment. He is afraid of an accident. ‘But my employer did not give me a health insurance card’, he says. ‘And I can’t afford a hospital stay on my salary.’ When he tries to give his notice, his boss throws the letter in the garbage can and says he will not get his passport back. This type of situation is widespread. According to an investigation done in 2011 by a Qatari institute, 90% of migrant workers do not get their passport back once the procedure for obtaining a residence permit is completed. Despite the fact that this practice of holding back passports is totally illegal.

Last year, Amnesty International had also published a damning report on the shocking working and living conditions of migrant workers in Qatar [2]. The testimonies gathered by the human rights NGO mentioned several types of abuses: salaries that went unpaid for months; residence permits not provided by employers or not extended, in a country where any foreigner caught without one risks prison; workers put up in dilapidated barracks… the list goes on. Qatar also forbids foreign workers from joining a union.

‘Qatar is a state for which I have the utmost respect’

‘Qatar is an Eldorado for business, but total impunity reins!’, says Gilles Letort. The unionist visited Qatari worksites in October 2013 with a international union delegation. ‘We visited Belgian, Spanish, American construction sites. What we saw was is 13,000 workers on a single site, with the sun beating down. The companies work with 40 different subcontractors, put the people up in slums. And then, they say: Qatar is wonderful, we are making double-digit profits!’ Gilles Letort and his delegation also tried to gain access to a worksite led by the French construction giant Vinci, which is building a tramway in Lusail, a new city which will host one of the stadiums for the World Cup. But, the unionists were turned away at the entrance.

With its oil and gas revenues, and economic growth at more than 6% in 2013, Qatar is one of the richest nations in the world in terms of per capita GDP, on par with Luxembourg. The announcement that it would be hosting the World Cup has given a new impetus to large building and infrastructure projects in the emirate. The country will build nine stadiums to host the event, along with metro lines, highways, hotels… The total budget for all the planned projects exceeds 100 billion Euros! More than enough to entice the global building and public works sector. ‘Qatar is a state for which I have the utmost respect’, declared the boss of Bouygues to investors in 2012 [3]. Qatar enjoys a large number of natural resources, and has put these to good use. All the better!’ Bouygues has every reason to appreciate the emirate. The group is building a vast new apartment complex in a new commercial neighborhood of Doha. The complex consists of nine skyscrapers, with a shopping mall, a conference center, and parking lots… a 950 million Euro contract [4]. To put this in perspective, the redevelopment of Stade vélodrome in Marseille, another large Bouygues project, amounts to ‘only’ 267 million Euros.

Visits allowed for journalists, not for unionists

Vinci finds itself on an even prettier perch. Through its subsidiary QDVC (a joint subsidiary of the national investment fund Qatari Diar and Vinci construction), Vinci is building a new metro line in Doha. Total contract value: 1.5 billion euros! The contract for the airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes is worth only a third of that. Vinci/QDVC has also won a contract to build a light rail line in the new city of Lusail (374 million Euros for the last part of the contract), a highway on Doha’s periphery (850 million euros), a contract for an underground parking lot, and a contract for a landscaping park at the Doha Sheraton hotel (264 million Euros). Eiffage, the third giant in the French building and public works sector, has not yet begun any projects in Qatar. But they certainly look forward to bidding on contracts slated for the stadiums. ‘We are positioning ourselves to be ready for emblematic projects, those with added value in engineering terms, such as a museum in the United Arab Emirates or future soccer stadiums for the World Cup in 2022 in Qatar,’ says Vincent Papait, director of international development at Eiffage metal construction [5].

For large building and public works corporations, therefore, Qatar is the goose that is laying the golden egg. Is the stake worth getting involved in human rights violations? Bouygues and Vinci defend themselves from such claims. ‘Internationally, our group applies rules which incorporate all the provisions set out in the "working housing" guide put together by ILO [International Labor Organization] and in some cases exceed those standards’, claims Matthieu Carré from Bouygues’ communications department [6] Similar response at Vinci. The company recruits its workers directly in their countries of origin, buys them a 2-way ticket, provides them with air-conditioned housing complete with meals and entertainment, claims Maxence Naouri, from the group’s communication department in Paris. [7] All in all, it would seem the employees of Bouygues and Vinci live much more comfortably than described in the reports by the ITUC and Amnesty. ‘One must make the distinction between between Qatari legislation and the actual practices of foreign companies at their sites. The big businesses in the country are trying to improve things.’, counters Maxcene Naouri, of Vinci.

Such assurances do not seem to have been enough for three large Dutch pension funds, who have recently announced that they would review their investments in several large building and public works firms, including Vinci, because of their involvement in Qatar [8]. Even if the direct employees of Bouygues and Vinci enjoy such comfortable conditions as claimed by the firms’ communications departments, the whole issue of sub-contractors remains. These subcontractors can account for half of the workforce on construction sites. Even when leading companies actually ensure good working conditions for the subcontractors’ employees when they are on the building sites, it is much more difficult to ensure they have decent living conditions and freedom of movement once they leave the site. The 2013 report published in 2013 by Amnesty International brought up several abuses by one of Vinci’s subcontractors at the Sheraton Park worksite.

An alliance between French buildings and public works groups and Qatari investors

Beyond this issue of subcontractors’ employees, absent independent verification, there is still doubt as to the working conditions of the employees of the large groups themselves on the Qatari construction sites. If working and living conditions are so wonderful for the employees of Vinci, why did they refuse access to the unionist delegation in October? ‘That’s old news’, responded the communications officer testily. ‘We organized a visit of the site for journalists in November.’ It was, yet again, the worksite at the Sheraton hotel in Doha. The French building and public works magazine Le Moniteur was part of the visit and its headline on November 25 was: ‘Vinci exports its safety procedures to Qatari worksites.’ [9]. Vinci obviously prefers opening its sites to journalists rather than to unionists. ‘Visiting Vinci sites is always difficult,’, says Gilles Letort. ‘Vinci said they had not been warned of our coming. But that is not the problem. What is blocking things is the fact that Vinci’s Qatari partner, is a sovereign Qatari wealth fund, Qatar Diar.’

In order to be able to get contracts in Qatar, foreign groups must form joint-ventures with Qatari companies. The Qatari company’s share must be 51%. Thus, Bouygues created Bouygues Construction Qatar in 2012 by partnering with Abdullah Bin Khalifa Al Thani, an ‘economic and political personage in Qatar’ as the French group describes him [10]. Close to power, Abdullah Bin Khalifa Al Thani seems the perfect partner to get noticed for ‘future bids, in particular transport infrastructure and sports facilities’.

For its part, Vinci has allied itself with an investment company which depends directly on the Qatari state. ‘The company Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company (Qatari Diar) was created by the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign fund of the state of Qatar’, states Vinci’s 2013 annual report. This is much more than a happenstance partnership. The French group has also welcomed the sovereign fund of the emirate into its own capital. Since 2009, Qatari Diar holds a 5.2% share in the French building and public works giant. ‘Qatar Diar is the emir’, sums up Gilles Letort. ‘That is why Vinci is able to get contract after contract in Qatar.’

Promises and charters, but still no rights

Facing protests and criticism by NGOs, unions and even the International Labour Organization, a UN agency, which called Qatar in March ‘to eliminate the use of forced labor in any form’, how did the Emirate respond? With promises and charters. The first charter was introduced a year ago. Last February, the supreme committee in charge of organizing the World Cup adopted a new one. It sets rules for recruitment, lodging, and pay. But these are to be applied only to worksites directly linked to the World Cup and sports infrastructure, not to transportation or hotel sites. And, most of all, the charter does not challenge the kafala system. ‘Neither of the charters has the force of law behind it. They change nothing for workers rights in Qatar’, says Gemma Swart, from ITUC.

On May 14, a new promise: Qatari officials announce the reform of the sponsorship system at a press conference. A true progress? Sharan Burrow, general secretary of ITUC, remains cautious: ‘No timetable or concrete procedure have been put forward. The exit visa system must remain in place, but it is now the Minister of the Interior who will decide who has the right to leave the country. And none of these reforms seem to apply to domestic workers.’ Moreover, it is still out of the question to allow workers to unionize and to introduce collective bargaining for better working conditions. ‘Nothing has changed. You still need authorization to leave the country. There is still no freedom of association’, sums up Gemma Swart.

FIFA, universal exhibition and the Louvre : everyone with the Gulf emirates!

FIFA is just now starting to recognize the problem of working conditions in Qatar. In the mean time, allegations of corruption during the bidding process for the World Cup intensify. The organization has met with international unions and has asked Qatar to report to it on the state of affairs. ITUC is asking for more. ‘If Fifa demands that Qatar abolish the kafala system and respect basic rights, Qatar will do it.’, thinks Sharan Burrow. ‘The problem with Qatar is its laws. The businesses take advantage as much as possible. And FIFA does not even ask for minimal labout standards when it chooses who gets to organize the events, says Gilles Letort.

FIFA, at least, has the excuse of not being alone in this case. Last year, the International Exhibition Bureau, based in Paris, granted the organization of the 2020 International Exhibition to Dubai, another extraordinarily rich emirate in the Gulf. And the Louvre is building a sister museum in Abu Dhabi. The kafala system is a bit less stringent in the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are members) than in Qatar. But working conditions for migrant workers are hardly better. ‘Migrant workers are also exploited in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Their conditions are miserable and they do not have the right to form or belong to unions’, explains Sharan Burrow. [11] ‘No one cares about the workers !’, laments Gilles Letort. While part of the world follows the action in Brazil, pressure is mounting on those working to finish the preparations for the 2022 World Cup. Gemma Swart testifies to this: ‘On each of our trips to Qatar, people are more and more scared to talk’.

Rachel Knaebel

Photo : CC Richard Messenger

[1These estimates are based on statistics provided by the embassies of Nepal and India on their migrant workers to Qatar who died on their worksites. Nearly half of Qatari migrant workers come from either India or Nepal.

[2Human Rights Watch also published a report in 2012 on the same subject.

[3Source : Question-answer session at Bouygues 2012 General Assembly, last page.

[4Bouygues pockets 60% of this amount, totaling 570 million, the rest going to Qatari partners.

[5Eiffage, Annual report 2013, p 28.

[6According to Bouygues, its rules exceed ILO standard on the following aspects: ‘fire protection for the buildings, codes for electrical installations, installing the air conditioning system, conception of a management plan for basic living conditions for all occupants, installation of individual showers, specific rules for the kitchen : food stocks, cleaning (…), regular analysis and inspections of drinking water and waste management.’.

[7More precisely, Vinci’s communication officer stated: ‘In Qatar, our workers are recruited directly in their country of origin. We make them pass tests and explain the nature of the work they will be doing in Qatar as well as working conditions as defined by Qatari law. We pay for a 2-way ticket. The workers are lodged, fed, and their laundry is done. All the money they earn can therefore put towards savings. Our workers are lodged in quarters where they share rooms: four to a room for more junior workers, two to a room for more senior. Workers who lead teams get their own room. Our workers sleep in air-conditioned rooms, of course, and have access to a drinking fountain. Transportation is on an air-conditioned bus. We have thought to give them an entertainment space at their quarters: air-conditioned halls with pool tables, ping pong tables, fully equipped gym, TV rooms, computers with internet access. Outside, we have built a basketball court. The cafeteria is regularly inspected.’

[8Dutch union federations have prompted them to review their relations with Vinci and others. One of these pension funds, PFZW, has 115 million Euro worth of stocks and bonds in Vinci.

[9France Info was also there. Its report was less laudatory. See here (in French).


[11See this 2011 ITUC report on the situation of workers in the Gulf and this article form the New York Times on Abu Dhabi.