A recent inquiry carried out and signed by the British newspaper The Guardian caused an uproar in global public opinion. According to the article, published on February, 23, Qatar would be home of a silent massacre of foreign workers employed in the pharaonic construction sites set up in the context of the forthcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup.

This alleged massacre would start in 2010, that is when Doha won the right to host the world’s most followed sport event and begun to attract temporary workforce from Asia and Africa, mostly from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines and Kenya. The Guardian argues and reports that work-related and natural reasons would cause about 6,500 deaths among the guest workers in the period comprised between 2010 and 2020; a figure – they assume –  that could be much higher if only the Government of Qatar were more transparent in the process of data collection.

In order to understand whether The Guardian’s inquiry is actually based on factual evidence or not, we have reached out a Doha-based expert whose in-depth knowledge of the country can help the international audience better discern and, more importantly, to get an idea of what Qatar is truly doing as regard to labor rights and occupational safety and health.

The expert who agreed to speak with InsideOver is Max Tuñón, the head of the project office of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for the State of Qatar. The reason for interviewing him stems from the fact that the ILO and the Government of Qatar entered into a technical cooperation programme in 2017, to provide support with the country’s ambitious labour reform agenda, and to ensure compliance with ratified international labour standards.

According to the Guardian’s inquiry about 6,500 guest workers died in Qatar between 2010 and 2020, for both work-related and non-work-related reasons, in the context of the works for the next World Cup. What is true and what is not in the above-mentioned report? Do you have other estimates, possibly more reliable?

We are not in a position to comment on the specifics of that article, however it is paramount to make a clear distinction between work-related fatalities and non-work-related fatalities. Data analysis should also take into account the size and composition of the population and several other factors. The official government figure on the number of work-related deaths for 2018 was 123 and for 2019 was 117. The ILO is currently collaborating with the Government of Qatar to enhance the collection and analysis of statistics on work-related injuries, disaggregated by nationality, age, cause of injury, etc. More broadly, the Government and the ILO are working to strengthen occupational safety and health at the policy and strategic level, as well as very practically enhancing the ability of the labour inspectorate to enforce regulations.

How Qatar is dealing with the topic of labor security? Can you explain to us the national labor policy in short? 

For the past three years, the ILO has been working with the Government to implement a comprehensive and ambitious labour reform agenda that is benefiting workers, employers and the economy as a whole. With the elimination of the most problematic aspects of the kafala (sponsorship) system, we’ve seen the introduction of labour market mobility – workers are now allowed to change employers –; a first for the Gulf region. This has redressed the level of control that employers had over workers. It will also reduce the costs and risks related with cross-border recruitment, and make Qatar a more attractive destination for global talent and investment.

Max Tuñón, the head of the project office of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for the State of Qatar
Max Tuñón, the head of the project office of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for the State of Qatar

What are the conditions of guest workers in Qatar?

A new minimum wage of QAR 1,000 plus food and accommodation will come into force on 20 March, and will directly benefit an estimated 20 per cent of the workforce. The non-discriminatory minimum wage applies to all workers regardless of their nationality and the sector in which they work, including domestic workers. Social dialogue between workers and employers is also expanding, including through the establishment of joint committees at the enterprise level. We recognize the achievements in Qatar’s very ambitious labour reform agenda, and both the Government and the ILO are fully aware that there is work still to be done.

What still needs to be done regarding the labour reforms?

The payment of due wages is the number one concern of low-wage workers in Qatar. The global pandemic affected many enterprises, and created a backlog for the Government in redressing wage-related grievances. The ILO is working with the Government to strengthen the enforcement by the Wage Protection System, which requires employers to pay workers into their bank accounts, and is digitally monitored by the labour ministry. We are also collaborating with the labour inspectorate to monitor wage payment practices, as well as occupational safety and health and accommodation standards.