UK contractors and consultants working on projects in Qatar where there is evidence of abuse of workers’ rights have been warned that they could face civil claims raised on behalf of migrant workers in the UK courts.
And Human Rights Watch, the New York-based pressure group that has been highlighting human rights violations in Qatari construction projects since their Building a Better World Cup report in June 2012, has called on UK contractors and consultants to take a joint stance on improving workers’ rights and conditions.
Law firm Leigh Day, a specialist in multi-claimant class actions, is currently in Qatar investigating construction projects for evidence of abuse of labour laws. Leigh Day is also acting for members of the GMB union on the ongoing blacklisting claims.
Nichola Marshall from Leigh Day told CM: “If a British company engages on a project on which migrant workers are subject to abuse, then they must face the very real prospect of being held to account in this country for their actions.”
UK firms are well represented in the rapidly developing Gulf state, and include Carillion, Mace, EC Harris, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Laing O’Rourke, Turner & Townsend and Hill International.
However, a spokesman for Leigh Day declined to comment further, or explain on what grounds a claim could be brought, saying it was still at the “sensitive investigation stage”.
"If a British company engages on a project on which migrant workers are subject to abuse, then they must face the very real prospect of being held to account in this country for their actions."
Nichola Marshall, Leigh Day
The Guardian newspaper has reported that Nepalese workers, the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, died at a rate of almost one per day during the summer, while many others faced abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation.
The human rights abuses are linked to the so-called “kafala” system, under which workers from Nepal, India, Egypt, Lebanon and others are brought into the country by labour agencies acting as “sponsors”. These middlemen then confiscate workers’ passports, so they are unable to leave unsanitary and overcrowded labour camps in search of better working conditions elsewhere.
Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East researcher from Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that UK construction companies helping to modernise the country find themselves in a difficult position, but need to take a stronger stance.
He told CM: “The kafala system is enshrined in law and custom, and is one of the main reasons why workers are still exploited. UK firms are entering a market characterised by exploitation, often perpetrated by subcontractors at the bottom of the food chain.
“So how do you work in Qatar ethically? It’s clearly very difficult for UK businesses – they are in the market because Qatar offers valuable contracts, but they haven’t exerted what influence they do have, either with our government here or with their Qatari partners.
“They are at the mercy of the subcontractors at the bottom of the supply chain and it’s difficult to control that, unless you’re taking proactive steps to regulate their workers.
“I’ve heard people say ‘we can’t get ahead of our clients on this’ – that was from a big Western multinational firm. But we’re talking about forced labour here.
“I think they do have power as a collective, and their strength has to be exerted collectively, as a national sector. Yes, they want to deliver major projects but they also want to be protected from the reputational risk and the legal risk.”
Referring to Leigh Day’s presence in Qatar, McGeehan said that European law allows for civil cases concerning human rights abuses committed overseas to be heard in EU jurisdictions.