SECURITY GUARDS IN QATAR are working in conditions which amount to forced labour, including on projects linked to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Amnesty International has found. 

In a new 74-page report, They Think That We’re Machines, Amnesty documented the experiences of 34 current or former employees of eight private security companies in Qatar.

The security guards, all migrant workers, described routinely working 12 hours a day, seven days a week – often for months or even years on end without a day off. Most said their employers refused to respect the weekly rest day which is required by Qatari law, and workers who took their day off faced being punished with arbitrary wage deductions. One man described his first year in Qatar as “survival of the fittest”.

The 34 workers were employed by eight different private companies which provided services for sites including government ministries and football stadiums, as well as other infrastructure projects essential for the 2022 World Cup, such as hotels, transport systems and sports facilities. At least three of the companies provided security for recent FIFA tournaments, including the Club World Cup and the FIFA Arab Cup.

Qatari law and regulations restrict weekly working hours to a 60-hour maximum, including overtime, with workers entitled to one full, paid rest day each week. This reflects international law and standards – rest is a fundamental human right. Despite this, 29 of the 34 security guards who spoke to Amnesty said they regularly worked 12 hours a day, and 28 said they were routinely denied a day off, meaning many worked 84 hours per week, for weeks on end.

Milton (not his real name), from Kenya, worked for a security company at a hotel until last year. He said that on a typical day he would leave his accommodation at 6.30am and return at 8pm, and that he often went months without a single day off. Abdul, from Bangladesh, worked as a security guard from 2018 to mid-2021, and said he did not have a day off for three years.

Zeke, from Uganda, worked at the Club World Cup in February 2021. He told Amnesty how he had to complete a week-long training session in preparation for the tournament. The eight-hour training took place immediately after his regular shift each day. Zeke said: “Imagine working a 12-hour shift then being driven to the training centre, then you do training for eight hours. All night. Then you report to work at 5am – you get four hours sleep and you train the whole week. They think that we’re machines.”

To take their rest day, security guards had to seek express permission from their employers. This was often refused and taking a rest day without permission could result in wage deductions, amounting to forced labour. The International Labour Organisation defines forced labour as work that is performed involuntarily or under the threat of penalty, including financial penalty.

Edson, from Uganda, said of his employer: “They would say ‘we don’t have enough security, so you have to work’. We didn’t have any option. If your supervisor says go to duty you have to go, or they cut your salary.”

Jacob, also from Uganda, used to work for a company guarding access roads and receiving deliveries at Khalifa International Stadium. He told Amnesty that taking the mandatory rest day without permission could result in a penalty of more than five days’ pay.

Many guards travelled to Qatar having paid hefty recruitment fees, only to find that the pay and working conditions were very different to what had been promised. Workers often felt unable to complain for fear of the consequences, as Lawrence, from Kenya, explained: “They say at the job you have a lunch break of one hour, but we don’t have one and they don’t pay you. They say Friday is an off day, but it is an off day that you don’t have …You cannot complain – if you do you are terminated and deported.”

Some guards reported being heavily financially penalised for ‘misdemeanours’ such as not wearing their uniform properly, or for leaving their post to use the toilet without someone to cover for them. Juma described how powerless workers felt to object to such penalties: “There is no way to challenge it. Yes, we know the rules, and what the labour law says, but how can you challenge this? You are not in a position to do so.”

Amnesty also found that four of the companies in the report are still not paying overtime at the rate required by law, meaning they are in some cases cheating guards out of eight days’ pay each month.

Amnesty’s in-depth interviews with the 34 current or former security guards, supervisors and safety officers between April 2021 and February 2022, builds on earlier 2017-18 interviews with 25 guards from a security company. The consistency of their accounts across multiple companies indicates that these abuses are systemic. In all, tens of thousands of migrant workers are employed in the private security sector in Qatar – a significant workforce often experiencing considerable work pressure, and in some cases suffering very serious abuse.

Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Head of Economic and Social Justice, said: “Employers are still exploiting their workers in plain sight, and the Qatari authorities must take urgent measures to protect workers and hold abusers accountable.

“Many of the security guards we spoke to knew their employers were breaking the law but felt powerless to challenge them. Physically and emotionally exhausted, workers kept reporting for duty under threat of financial penalties – or worse, contract termination or deportation.

“Despite the progress Qatar has made in recent years, our research suggests that abuses in the private security sector – which will be increasingly in demand during the World Cup – remain systematic and structural.

“With the World Cup just months away, FIFA must focus on doing more to prevent abuses in the inherently perilous private security sector, or see the tournament further marred by abuse.

“More broadly, FIFA must also use its leverage to pressure Qatar to better implement its reforms and enforce its laws. Time is fast running out – if better practices are not established now, abuses will continue long after fans have gone home.”

* Read the report They Think That We’re Machines here.

* Source: Amnesty International UK