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It's not only Qatar: Western institutions contribute to labor abuses in the Gulf

In this Sunday, May 3, 2015 file photo taken during a government organized media tour, Nischal Tamang from Nepal takes a break in his work, in Doha, Qatar. Tamang lives in a housing facility for laborers that has been cited by labor inspectors for substan
In this Sunday, May 3, 2015 file photo taken during a government organized media tour, Nischal Tamang from Nepal takes a break in his work, in Doha, Qatar. Tamang lives in a housing facility for laborers that has been cited by labor inspectors for substandard conditions. Advocates for workers' rights are urging FIFA sponsors to take more responsibility for the treatment of World Cup workers in Qatar, calling the "horrific" working conditions there a blot on any company's brand. At a press conference Monday, May 18, 2015 they singled out FIFA sponsors such as McDonalds, Visa, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Budweiser, Gazprom, KIA and Hyundai, saying they have the power to pressure both FIFA and Qatar into improving the treatment of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.
Maya Alleruzzo, AP

Qatar's history of workplace abuses has come to light amid news surrounding the ongoing FIFA bribery allegations and the country’s preparations to host the World Cup. But Qatar is not alone in the Gulf region, where rapid development has relied on cheap labor by migrant workers who work in unsafe conditions.

The Arabian Peninsula has been developing at super speed since the turn of the decade, and there appear to be no signs of slowing. Respected Western institutions, accustomed to labor laws that ensure worker safety and minimum wages, are leading the construction, giving legitimacy to this “semi-slavery,” according to an Amnesty International report.

Millions of migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, come to the Gulf looking for temporary employment. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, fewer than 20 percent of residents are Emirati. The remaining immigrant population comes to the Gulf through a sponsoring corporate employer that is responsible for every aspect of the worker’s entrance into and stay in the country. The legal status of the worker is tied to the sponsor, leaving him or her open to exploitation — all for less than $10 U.S. a day, according to the report.

As is the case in the U.A.E., construction work in Qatar is conducted mostly by migrant workers. An investigation by the Guardian revealed that Nepali migrant workers have been dying at a rate of one a day, succumbing to heat and long hours.

Another report, conducted by the International Trade Union Confederation, estimated that 1,200 workers have died in Qatar since 2010. While the ITUC report does not trace all deaths to World Cup-related projects, at its current calculated rate, 4,000 workers will die by the time the 2022 World Cup begins.

Frustration over the worker abuses in Qatar is exacerbated by recent revelations of corruption within the FIFA administration. Based in Zurich, Switzerland, the governing body generates enormous revenue — $2.1 billion last year, according to The Telegraph.

FIFA isn’t alone among Western institutions that are fostering labor force abuses in the Gulf. New York University, the nation’s largest private higher education institution, opened a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi last fall, completing its trio of major campuses (the other being in Shanghai). The new student space has 28 buildings, including a 700-seat theater and a conference center. Prior to its construction, students and faculty worried about their liberal university entering a region without guaranteed protections for freedom of speech and with a record of human rights violations.

An investigation conducted by The New York Times, published this time last year, validated their concerns, uncovering wide-ranging labor abuses. Some workers were imprisoned, beaten, and shipped home for striking for improved working conditions. Others had their passports and wages held by sponsors until construction was completed to ensure they would not run away. In one case, 40 workers slept in a 400-square-foot room for months.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, one of the most prominent and iconic museums in the world, is set to follow N.Y.U. to the Gulf. When a branch of its museum opens in Abu Dhabi in 2017, it will be the largest Guggenheim in the world and feature a design more daring than the New York original, according to its website. Down the desert road, construction is underway on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an outpost of the busiest museum in the world. Development on both projects will be subject to enormous public scrutiny to see if the museums will succeed where N.Y.U. failed, according to a Times blog.

Meanwhile, all attention is on Qatar.

“Qatar is in the spotlight over an issue that blights the Gulf region, and Qatari officials should see this as an opportunity to set a positive example,” Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch told Human Rights Watch. “If Qatar seizes the opportunity, it will win international acclaim.”

Email: oetman@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @OAEtman