FES: In mid-March, Qatar‘s largest labour camp was shut down by the government of the gulf state. Over 100 cases of COVID-19 among (construction) migrant workers led to a virtual imprisonment of thousands of migrant workers living in the camp. What is the current situation in the camp?
Albert Yuson: On 1 April the Qatar government announced that the quarantine would continue in this area where it is estimated that 40,000 migrant workers live and a good number of them are likely to be construction workers. Reports from workers state that there are adequate food rations but there have been some logistical issues ensuring everyone is receiving food.There are also clinics so workers can access medical care. The government has said that these quarantined workers will continue to receive their salaries. We know that the quarantine is being strictly enforced, with reports a few days into the quarantine that 150 migrant workers were deported to Nepal, allegedly for violating the quarantine rules.
Eyes on the ground reported that there was an increase in police and military presence and that barricades had been reinforced in the days before the extension of the quarantine was announced. The extent of the logistics that are in place are concerning as it appears that this quarantine may continue for an indefinite time and is no doubt causing anxiety and fear for workers. It is not known if workers have adequate knowledge and are taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in this area where workers are living in close proximity with each other. The problem is that even if they have information, the longer this confinement goes on, the more workers will become restless and are likely to falter on social distancing and other safety precautions.
Apart from the initial figure of over 100 workers that were tested positive in mid-March which led to the decision to quarantine the area where these workers live, there has been no other information on COVID-19 cases here. However, the Qatar government has said 85 percent of the cases are those in quarantine, so we are concerned that a good number of the 835 COVID-19 cases registered in Qatar are in this confined area. Whilst this quarantine might protect the rest of the population , it could become a crisis like that faced by those on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, only with much poorer living conditions and potentially putting a far greater number of people at risk, all of whom are already a vulnerable group as migrant workers.
As the BWI, we have been organising on infrastructure developments that are underway in Qatar for the FIFA 2022 World Cup. In part, because of the scrutiny that we have put in place to monitor working and living conditions on the developments for mega sporting events, workers of the main contractors of these infrastructure projects do not live in this area that is currently under quarantine but rather in facilities that were approved Supreme Committee for the Delivery and Legacy (SCDL), the organising body for the infrastructure of the 2020 FIFA World Cup. However, it is quite possible that some workers of subcontractors on the projects where we are organising could be in the area that is under quarantine. I must say though, that even the best facilities accommodating workers that we have visited are densely populated and closed in due to the extreme heat in Qatar. The virus could spread very quickly and so even these workers face a considerable risk because of their living arrangements.
In the course of your Sports campaign, the BWI has been constantly working to improve health, safety and security measures for construction workers in infrastructure projects related to global sport events. Are these measures in Qatar proving helpful in this extraordinary situation where we are confronted with a global pandemic?
Our approach to in the BWI Global Sports Campaign for Decent Work has been on organising with a strong focus on health and safety at the site level and is proving to be very useful for construction workers at FIFA 2022 World Cup infrastructure projects in Qatar at these sites during this difficult time.
The BWI has a cooperation agreement with Qatar’s Supreme Committee on Delivery and Legacy (SDCL) and we have jointly conducted OSH (Occupational Health and Safety) inspections in stadium project sites and workers’ accommodation facilities. In fact, it was during the week of our joint inspection in Qatar that the government begun rolling out measures to contain COVID-19 and we were able to ensure that workers representatives on the infrastructure sites inspected were able to raise issues and concerns of workers concerning the crisis. Employer representatives during the meetings explained the measures being undertaken to protect workers against the spread of the virus.
This was a good start and such engagements are continuing at site level because we have already established workplace committees at these sites. So yes, our focused approach to occupational health and safety has been very helpful to migrant workers in Qatar as it undoubtedly has resulted in an increased capacity of contractors to respond to the crisis and has also provided the structure for workers and employers to discuss measures needed and resolve issues that might arise.
We may be grounded for now but the BWI will continue to play its role to closely monitor the health and safety condition of workers in the infrastructure projects for the FIFA World Cup. We cannot be on sites, conducting joint inspection but next week the BWI is having a virtual meeting with the SCDL team on safety and health measures on the site including setting up criteria for when to shut down a site should the risk of infection become too great.
Also, largely a result of the BWI’s organising work in Qatar migrant community associations have been established and strengthened and joint migrant community leadership forum supported by the BWI has been functioning for some time. The Labour Ministry has met with the leader’s forum to provide them with information on the measures being undertaken by the Government of Qatar on the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministry officials appealed to the leaders of migrant communities to reach out to their respective constituencies to share information and to educate members on how to protect themselves.
Like other countries Qatar has been launching vast programmes to support its private sector through the current crisis. What are the measures taken by the government and private companies to protect and help its working population of which 95% are migrant workers?
The Qatar government like many others has taken steps to support the private sector with incentives of about USD 21 billion. There are other initiatives for the private sector such as postponements on loan repayments and exemption on fees for rent and basic services. An additional USD 830 million has been made available to private sector companies to pay salaries. The government has exempted food and medical supplies for customs duties on condition that this is reflected in the price of these goods, which will help everyone in Qatar, including migrant workers.
The government has been communicating with workers reassuring them that they will continue to receive wages if they are quarantined or unable to work due to a partial lock down recently announced in Qatar where companies have been told to reduce staff at workplaces by 80 percent and domestic workers are not to provide services in homes during this time. Whilst we welcome the assurance of the government that workers will continue to receive their wages, we will be urging the government to monitor that this is actually implemented by employers. The government set up a hotline that workers can use to report issues during this time but workers are complaining that the line is not working. A more effective method of oversight, ensuring that workers are paid must be put in place.
However, work on the infrastructure projects for the FIFA 2022 World Cup as well as major road projects will continue. It is unclear at this time whether other construction, such as hotel projects related to the World Cup will continue to operate as usual. This is a difficult time for workers, as they are afraid that they will get sick and support a complete shutdown, while others are worried that this might ultimately affect their income and want to continue working.
Construction employers are taking precautions on the worksites that we monitor and workers report that their temperatures are taken daily. They say that they have been provided with masks, visors and gloves but it is too early to say how much compliance there is amongst workers to wear personal protective equipment. Social distancing has proved to be challenging and whilst the number of people that can be in the canteen at a given time has been reduced and workers need to maintain a 1.5 metre distance while queuing for food, on the rest of the site social distancing is not being observed and may require reduction in the number of workers on site at a time.
On thursday the Government of Qatar said that the number of people being transported must be reduced by half for distancing to be possible in buses. Today a new directive has been sent to construction companies by the Labour Ministry which outlines measures that need to be taken on worksites to prevent the spread of the virus which includes limiting the workday of each construction worker to six hours. The government is being responsive, and measures are being put in place and changing as the situation changes. The BWI is confident that the capacity we have established on the ground in workplaces will play an important role in identifying and addressing risks posed by COVID-19 at the workplace and for monitoring the implementation of government requirements that have been put in place.
Qatar, host of the FIFA World Cup 2022 and one of the major global destinations of labour migrants closed its borders to foreigners this week. What does this mean for the countries of origin of migrant workers?
It is very uncertain now how travel restrictions during the pandemic will affect the movement of migrant workers. For now, it seems no new migrant workers are coming in and in time this will affect the flow of remittances to the migrant workers’ countries of origin. But it is a two-way street, Qatar also is dependent on migrant workers for almost its entire workforce, so I am sure there will be a procedure put in place, possibly requiring a quarantine period, that will allow migrant workers to continue to work in Qatar.
There are also reports that migrant workers on the sites that the BWI has been organising are being required to stay in Qatar. However, migrants returning to their countries of origin are not likely to be from these infrastructure construction projects as work is continuing. it is more likely that returning migrants are from other sectors where there have been terminations.
There will be many challenging ethical and moral issues to resolve as the pandemic continues to grip the world and migrant workers are especially vulnerable