Qatar has registered a record number of injuries from falls by construction site workers despite pressure on the Gulf nation to improve safety as it pushes ahead with a 150 US billion dollar construction programme ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
"They are reckoning that more than 1,000 workers were injured in falls last year; that’s very serious," says Fiona Murie, Occupational Safety and Health Director of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).
"The problem in Qatar is that the workers don’t have rights to be involved in any prevention measures, they don’t have training, they don’t have the equipment," she said from the global union federation headquarters in Switzerland.
Official data on injuries suffered by the migrant labourers toiling on Qatar’s construction sites is hard to find, but a doctor in the trauma centre of one of the country’s leading hospitals has said the number of workers treated for falls is up over 1,000 a year compared to an average of 600 in 2008.
“Companies should take more interest in the safety of their workers," Dr Ahmad Zarour, Director of Trauma Critical Care at the Hamad General Hospital, told the Qatari newspaper The Peninsula recently.
“The authorities must be strict on rules and regulations to force these companies to take all safety measures and make it obligatory at all construction sites.”
Dr Zarour told the paper that ten per cent of those injured in falls are facing permanent disability.
When contacted by Equal Times, Dr Zarour declined to comment further without consultation with the hospital authorities.
As Qatar steps up its massive pre-World Cup construction program, there is mounting concern about the safety of the mainly Asian migrant workers who make up the vast bulk of the workforce on the country’s building sites.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), has called Qatar a "21st-century slave state" and warned that without improvements "more labourers will die during construction than the footballers who will step on the pitch."
The trade union movement has been playing a leading role in raising awareness of the plight of migrants in Qatar, lobbying Qatari authorities, football’s governing body FIFA and companies seeking contracts to build World Cup infrastructure.
Migrant workers make up 99 per cent of the private sector workforce in Qatar.
Often they are underpaid and poorly housed, obliged to work long hours in blistering heat, and denied basic rights to change jobs or protest their conditions. Many have their passports confiscated or are tricked into abusive contracts from which they cannot escape. Trade unions are not allowed.
Hundreds of thousands of extra workers are expected to pour into the country to build the stadia, roads, hotels and other infrastructure planned for the 2022 World Cup, increasing concerns about construction site safety.
The increased international spotlight on Qatar in the run to the World Cup has given the labour movement leverage to press for improvements.
Murie said BWI and the ITUC have been seeking to secure a broad charter on workers’ rights in Qatar that would include health and safety standards.
They are working with international development banks and private construction companies to ensure that labourers’ rights are written into contracts for building projects.
"The big international contractors that will be working there and are already working there have got a very serious reputational risk that they are aware of, and they don’t want to be in a situation where there are going to be people killed," she said.
Qatar’s rate of five fatal work injuries per 100,000 employees is eight times higher than the level in the United Kingdom, and well above the US rate of 3.5 per 100,000 according the website Qatar Under Construction which monitors safety issue in the construction industry.
In the past three years, at least 44 Indian workers have died from falls and other construction accidents, according to local media reports quoted by the site.
In 2010, work accidents killed 19 Nepali workers according embassy data cited in a Human Rights Watch report last year. Dozens more died from heart attacks blamed on working conditions.
Workers complain that building sites lack proper safety equipment, that there is insufficient safety training or that instructions and warnings are often available only in English or Arabic which many migrants do not understand.
Facing growing international scrutiny, the Qatari authorities have promised tighter safety rules and are discussing a special code to guarantee conditions for workers employed on World Cup projects.
But campaigners are concerned that without proper monitoring and enforcement such codes would be toothless.
“Qatar’s rulers asserted in 2010 that the country’s successful bid for the World Cup could inspire positive change and leave a huge legacy for the region, but the past two years have seen an absence of reform," Jan Egeland, Europe Director at Human Rights Watch told a news conference in Doha this month.
“If this persists, the tournament threatens to turn Qatar into a crucible of exploitation and misery for the workers who will build it.”
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