Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion is expected to meet with his Qatari counterpart on Friday, a day after Amnesty International released a report alleging labour abuse at a venue being built for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, set to be held in Qatar.
Global Affairs announced Thursday that Dion will meet with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani during the minister’s visit to Ottawa.
The pair is expected to discuss bilateral relations including trade and investment as well as security concerns regarding the terrorist group the Islamic State.
“Qatar is an important partner for Canada in our work toward peace and stability in the region, in our efforts to counter terrorism as members of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL and in international efforts to find a political solution in Syria,” Dion said in a statement.
However, the meeting comes on the heels of a damning report by the human rights group Amnesty International. The London-based group released a 52-page report alleging construction and migrant workers are being exploited and face some form of abuse while working on the World Cup venues.
The report is based on the interviews from February to May 2015 with 132 construction workers at the Khalifa International Stadium, one of several stadiums that will host World Cup matches. Amnesty also interviewed 99 migrants doing landscaping work in a surrounding sports complex that is not directly related to the games, and three other gardeners working elsewhere.
All of those interviewed reported some kind of abuse, including squalid or crowded living quarters, salary payments being withheld for months, and measures including passport confiscation that make it difficult to leave the country. Migrant workers elsewhere in Qatar have reported similar problems in the past.
Deepak, a metal worker on the Khalifa Stadium, told the rights group that his life in Qatar “is like a prison.”
“The manager said, ‘If you want to stay in Qatar be quiet and keep working,’” the metal worker said.
According to Amnesty, there are 1.7 million migrant workers in Qatar, who make up 90 per cent of its workforce.
Many in the Amnesty report said their sponsoring employer failed to obtain or renew their working permits, leaving the workers subject to fines and detention.
Each reported going into debt to pay recruitment fees – illegal under Qatari law – ranging from $500 to $4,300 to secure work. Most discovered on arrival that they would be paid less than promised by recruiters back home. Some of those interviewed reported earning basic salaries of well below $200 a month, plus allowances of around $50 a month for food.
Qatar has announced planned changes to its “kafala” employee-sponsorship system, which critics say leaves workers open to exploitation and abuse. The system, versions of which are used throughout the oil-rich Gulf states, gives bosses considerable power over workers by effectively binding them to a given employer and, in Qatar’s case, forcing them to secure exit permits before they can leave.
Changes signed into law by Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani last October are designed to make it easier for employees to change jobs or leave. Workers still won’t be able to immediately change jobs or depart whenever they want, however, and the changes don’t take effect until later this year.
The government has already made other changes, including moving some labourers into improved accommodations and instituting a “wage protection system” to tighten oversight of salary payments.
It says it is committed to doing more, calling its reform efforts a “work in progress.” It said in a statement Thursday that worker welfare is a top priority and it welcomes efforts by Amnesty and others.
“Though many of the points raised by Amnesty have already been addressed through recent legislative changes, we are concerned by a number of allegations contained within the report,” the government said in a statement. The government ministry overseeing labour issues will investigate contractors named in the report, it added.
The labour regulations at World Cup sites are meant to be particularly stringent. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is leading Qatar’s development of tournament venues and other projects, requires contractors to adhere to specific worker welfare standards that it and outside auditors monitor.
The Supreme Committee acknowledged in a statement to The Associated Press that Amnesty “identified challenges in worker conditions existing during early 2015,” but it said many of the issues raised in the report were addressed by June because of its own monitoring and enforcement efforts.
Problems cited by Amnesty “were not representative of the entire workforce” and were limited to four out of more than 40 companies working on the stadium – three of which are currently banned from World Cup projects, it added.
“The tone of Amnesty International’s latest assertions paint a misleading picture and do nothing to contribute to our efforts,” it said. “We have always maintained this World Cup will act as a catalyst for change – it will not be built on the back of exploited workers. We wholly reject any notion that Qatar is unfit to host the World Cup.”
Still, pressure is mounting. The International Labor Organization earlier this month gave Qatar one year to act on findings by an ILO delegation or face the possibility of a formal “commission of inquiry” by the U.N. labour agency.
Concern over Qatar’s human rights record also extends to FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, as it works to rebuild its scandal-tarnished image. In December, FIFA tapped Harvard professor John Ruggie to draft human rights requirements for World Cup hosts and sponsors.
FIFA told the AP it remains “fully aware of the risks facing construction workers in Qatar and of the opportunity that FIFA, together with other stakeholders, has to facilitate the improvement of working conditions in the country.”
It acknowledged that “challenges remain” and said it will continue to urge Qatari authorities and others involved to take steps that ensure that standards put in place by the Supreme Committee become the benchmark for construction work in Qatar.
–with files from Global News