Beirut. - Qatari authorities should adopt and enforce adequate restrictions on outdoor work to protect the lives of migrant construction workers who are at risk from working in the country’s intense heat and humidity, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Current heat protection regulations for the great majority of workers in Qatar only prohibit outdoor work from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the period June 15 to August 31. But climate data shows that weather conditions in Qatar outside those hours and dates frequently reach levels that can result in potentially fatal heat-related illnesses in the absence of appropriate rest. International experts recommend work limitations based on actual weather conditions and the use of the authoritative Wet Bulb Global Temperature heat stress index to calculate appropriate work to rest ratios, not on predefined dates and times.
Authorities also should investigate the causes of migrant worker deaths, regularly make public data on such deaths, and use the information to devise appropriate public health policies, Human Rights Watch said. In 2013, health authorities reported 520 such deaths of workers from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal in 2012, of whom 385, or 74 percent, died from unexplained causes. Qatari public health officials have not responded to requests for information about the overall number and causes of deaths of migrant workers since 2012.
“Enforcing appropriate restrictions on outdoor work and regularly investigating and publicizing information about worker deaths is essential to protect the health and lives of construction workers in Qatar,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Limiting work hours to safe temperatures – not set by a clock or calendar – is well within the capacity of the Qatari government and will help protect hundreds of thousands of workers.”
Qatar has a migrant labor force of nearly 2 million, who comprise approximately 95 percent of its total labor force. Approximately 40 percent, or 800,000, of these workers are employed in the construction sector. Since December 2010, when Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the country has embarked on a massive building spree – restoring or building eight stadiums, hotels, transportation, and other infrastructure. Qatari authorities have said they are spending US$500 million per week on World Cup-related infrastructure projects.
In contrast to the rudimentary and inadequate heat laws for workers, Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup organizers, the quasi-governmental Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, in 2016 mandated work-to-rest ratios, commensurate with the risk posed by heat and humidity, for the workers building stadiums for the tournament.
However, these creditable requirements only apply to just over 12,000 workers who are building stadiums for the World Cup – about 1.5 percent of Qatar’s construction workforce – and take no account of the effect of sunlight, which significantly increases the risk of heat stress. Supreme Committee officials told Human Rights Watch that they expect the number of workers on their projects to peak at around 35,000 by late 2018 or early 2019.
“If Qatar’s World Cup organizers can mandate a climate-based work ban, then the Qatar government can follow its lead as a step towards providing better protection from heat for all workers,” Whitson said.
The lack of transparency on migrant worker deaths has made it difficult to assess the extent to which extreme weather conditions are harming those working outdoors. A 2014 report that the Qatari government commissioned from the international law firm DLA Piper noted that the number of worker deaths in Qatar attributed to cardiac arrest, a general term that does not specify cause of death, was “seemingly high.” The authorities have failed to implement two key recommendations from that report. First, Qatar has not reformed its laws to allow autopsies or post-mortem examinations in cases of “unexpected or sudden deaths,” which the report says “should be performed” in any case of sudden or unexpected death; the law provides that autopsies may be performed to determine if the death was the result of illness, but should be expanded to explicitly authorize autopsies in cases of sudden or unexpected deaths. In addition, Qatari authorities have not commissioned an independent study into the seemingly high number of deaths vaguely attributed to cardiac arrest.
Moreover, Qatar has not made public meaningful data on migrant worker deaths for four years that would allow an assessment of the extent to which heat stress is a factor. Qatari authorities responded to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch about deaths of migrant workers at workplaces with figures indicating 35 workplace deaths, mostly from falls, presumably at construction sites, for 2016. The government has not provided the total number of deaths of migrant workers in 2016, but partial information from sending-country embassies indicates that the yearly migrant worker death toll has been in the hundreds.
International human rights law obliges all states to take necessary and reasonable steps to protect individuals’ right to life. This includes putting in place and enforcing legislation that provides effective protection to workers engaged in activities that pose a serious risk to life. States also have an obligation to collect information, undertake studies and compile reports about the risks associated with inherently dangerous types of work.