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Activists fear for Qatari workers as World Cup spotlight dims

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FILE - Workmen remove scaffolding at the Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Doha, Monday, April 29, 2019. Qatar is just days away from hosting the World Cup. , human rights groups fear a window could soon close to address the widespread exploitation of foreign workers.  (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

FILE – Workmen remove scaffolding at the Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Doha, Monday, April 29, 2019. Qatar is just days away from hosting the World Cup. , human rights groups fear a window could soon close to address the widespread exploitation of foreign workers. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

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With Qatar hosting the World Cup just days away, human rights groups fear a window may soon close to address the widespread exploitation of foreign workers.

The long run up to this month’s World Cup has brought unprecedented scrutiny to the treatment of the millions of foreign workers in the Persian Gulf nation who built stadiums and other infrastructure, and who will work in hotels and sweep streets during the biggest sporting event in the world. .

Facing strong international criticism, Qatar has enacted a series of reforms in recent years, including the partial dismantling of a system that tied workers to their employers and the enactment of a minimum wage, changes praised by the UN and by groups of human rights.

But activists say abuses ranging from unpaid wages to harsh working conditions in one of the world’s hottest countries remain widespread and workers, barred from forming unions or striking, have few avenues realistic to seek justice.

They are also concerned about what happens after the month-long tournament ends in December, when international attention shifts and employers slash their payrolls.

Qatar says it leads the region in labor reforms and that progress will continue after the World Cup. Officials from the ruling emir on down have lashed out at critics, accusing them of ignoring reforms and unfairly singling out the first Arab or Muslim nation to host the Cup.

Qatar, like other Gulf countries, relies on millions of foreign workers, who make up the majority of the population and almost 95% of the workforce, from well-paid corporate executives to construction workers.

Qatar has dismantled much of what is known as the “kafala” system, which tied workers to their employers and made it virtually impossible for them to quit or change jobs without permission. But rights groups say much of that system survives in different, more informal ways.

Workers often must pay exorbitant recruitment fees, going into debt before they even arrive. And employers can still cancel visas or sue quitters for “absconding,” a criminal offense.

“If a migrant worker leaves a job that hasn’t paid for several months, there’s a real risk that they won’t get that money back,” said Michael Page of New York-based Human Rights Rights. Clock.

Equidem, a London-based labor rights group, recently released a lengthy report documenting abuses at more than a dozen World Cup hotels, saying workers from Africa and Asia face sexual harassment, discrimination, theft of wages and health and safety risks.

Ella Knight, a London-based researcher at Amnesty International, says many migrants who work as security guards or domestic workers go months or even years without a day off, despite laws requiring at least one a week.

“Impunity remains a massive problem, so employers are simply not being held accountable or sanctioned in a way that prevents abuses from happening again,” he said.

Qatari law prohibits workers from forming unions or organizing protests, and authorities severely restrict workers’ access to the media. Police arrested at least 60 workers who went on strike over unpaid wages in August. Last year, two Norwegian reporters were arrested while reporting on migrant workers.

Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan security guard who had blogged anonymously about the plight of the workers, was detained for three months, including 28 days in solitary confinement, and fined $6,800 before leaving. the country last year.

In an article about his ordeal, he said Qatar’s reforms “look splendid” on paper, but the reality on the ground is different, with authorities apparently more willing to silence dissent than sanction abusive employers.

“I can’t help but wonder what’s in store for migrant workers after the World Cup,” he wrote. “If workers continue to live in horrible conditions, if workers continue to go months without pay, if workers continue to be unable to freely change jobs, if domestic workers continue to be unable to get justice, what happens when no one is watching?” .

Qatar has defended its reforms and says it will continue to safeguard workers’ welfare after the World Cup.

“Qatar has always recognized that there is work to be done, particularly in holding unscrupulous employers to account, as is the case with any country in the world,” Ali Al-Ansari, Qatari media attaché to the United States, said in a statement. Joined. “We are already seeing the number of violations decrease year over year as compliance among employers increases.”

Labor rights activists say Qatar still owes compensation to those who worked on World Cup infrastructure projects since the tournament was awarded in 2010, years before the reforms were enacted. Amnesty says authorities failed to investigate worker deaths during that period.

Amnesty International and other rights groups are now urging soccer’s governing body FIFA to set up a $440 million fund — equivalent to the tournament’s total prize money — to compensate workers, a call supported by several federations. Soccer’s world body has said it is open to the idea.

Qatar set up its own fund in 2018 to compensate workers who are injured on the job or are not paid, which Al-Ansari said had paid out some $270 million this calendar year alone. He did not comment directly on calls for a larger remedy fund.

Human Rights Watch’s Page says the sizeable payments by Qatari authorities, covering only claims in recent years, show the importance of establishing a larger fund to address “very serious abuses” that took place in recent years. prior to the reforms. enacted.

“If this is your position now, in the spotlight, what will your position be, the Qatari authorities, after the World Cup, in terms of reforms and protection of migrant workers, when the spotlight is out? from them? I think that’s really concerning,” she said.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Follow Joseph Krauss on Twitter at www.twitter.com/josephkrauss

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