Qatar, Dubai and Russia: construction industry must step up on human rights
Construction binges that precede major sporting events are fertile ground for worker abuse. How much responsibility do construction companies have?
This time last year, Pete Pattisson, a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Nepal, began a daily journey to Katmandu airport. There he watched a steady stream of coffins arriving from across the Gulf, carrying the bodies of migrant workers back to their grieving families who couldn't understand how their young sons had left clutching job contracts and arrived back, some only months later, in body bags.
Pattisson got on a plane to Qatar to try and find out what was happening to these men. The scale and severity of the abuses he found shocked him to the core.
"Any workers' camp I went to I found stories of non-payment of wages, appalling living and working conditions, huge debts and confiscation of passports, this was the story told by almost everyone I met. This was not the exception, this was the rule for how things were done in the Qatari construction industry," says Pattisson.
Pattisson's investigation – part of the Guardian's Modern-day Slavery project – revealed a spiralling death toll of migrant workers on building sites in Qatar and evidence of forced labour conditions on construction projects linked to the FIFA Football World Cup 2020.
The story that some of the world's richest states are being built on the blood and sweat of an impoverished and exploited migrant work force is not a new one. Some years ago Dubai came under huge pressure over the human toll of it's intense construction boom.
It is also not an issue exclusive to the Gulf States. The global construction industry is one of the world's biggest employers with a huge migrant labour force. According to a recent report (PDF), global construction output will grow by more than 70% to $15tn worldwide by 2025.
The construction binges that precede major global events such as sporting tournaments provide fertile ground for the abuse of such a vulnerable and often unregulated workforce to thrive. In 2013 Human Rights Watch warned that migrant workers involved in the construction of Russian facilities for the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2014 are often subject to sub-standard working conditions, non-payment of salaries and are left unprotected and vulnerable.
Yet how much responsibility should large construction companies bear for what happens down their sub-contracting chain? Much of the blame for the treatment of migrant workers on World Cup sites has fallen on the Qatari government, which despite launching new guidelines to protect its huge migrant workforce in 2013, has clearly failed to protect the workers.
Some in the construction industry argue that the onus has to be on national governments to enforce the labour laws and that the construction and building industry can't and shouldn't be expected to police their supply chains.
"When you're looking at international construction projects, it is important to understand that foreign companies are only one small element of the chain and often don't have a huge ability to affect what is happening at the bottom. We are often not the client but just one service provider," says Andrew Link, chief operating officer at the Construction Industry Council.
"I think this is why when you have a story such as the recent investigation into worker abuses on Qatari World Cup sites, it's the government who is under the most pressure because not only are they the ones who should be enforcing local labour laws, but they are also the ones commissioning this work in the first place."
Unlike the retail sector, where the human cost of consumer's addiction to disposable fashion has been widely documented, construction companies have so far avoided wide scale reputational damage.
But how long can this last? James Lynch from Amnesty International, which also released a damning report into forced labour conditions in the Qatari construction industry last year, says that the industry must act now or face the consequences.
"Unlike the retail or garment sector, the construction industry hasn't had to deal with too much focus in terms of supply chains until recently but now this is changing, particularly around issues of health and safety and migrant labour," he says.
Lynch believes that construction companies chasing big international contracts in a world with increasing global deregulation of the labour market, fierce competition and a growing migrant work force may soon find themselves unable to throw up their hands and plead either ignorance or denial of liability for what happens to those toiling on the ground. He says that during his research for Amnesty's recent report, he spoke to many local sub-contractors in Qatar who had absolutely no understanding of what kind of human rights standards they were supposed to uphold.
"It's not good enough for companies to avoid liability by pointing to their CSR policies. In many cases the construction industry is actually uniquely placed to make sure they know what is going on to workers on their projects, as they are often geographically located in the same place as sub-contractors, which often isn't the case with other sectors. Put simply it's the difference between writing a policy and actually dealing with a problem and stopping it from happening."
It's perhaps a sign of how jittery or unwilling the industry remains to engage on issues of human rights in global supply chains, that I failed to find one big construction company willing to be interviewed for this article.
Graham Hand, the senior industry adviser to the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative isn't surprised. "There is still a huge nervousness in the industry about human rights, corruption and global supply chains," he says. "The thing that makes it harder to engage is that our industry is famously secretive and very cautious about talking to each other about these issues and I'm afraid to say it is difficult to imagine that they will band together and demand common standards to all and sundry. If they can avoid the onus being on them to take action then they will."
Maybe Pete Pattisson sums it all up when he told me earlier this week, "If I, working with very few resources found it easy to find cases of labour abuse in the construction industry in Qatar, it would be very easy for a well-resourced construction company or the Qatari authorities to do the same. The question is whether they have the will to do it."