Qatar: Fears grow for forcibly disappeared migrants’ rights activist

Qatar: Fears grow for forcibly disappeared migrants’ rights activist

Qatari authorities must urgently reveal the whereabouts of Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan national who has been forcibly disappeared since 4 May, when he was taken from his labour accommodation for questioning by the state security service. Malcolm is a security guard, blogger and activist, who has been vocal about the plight of migrant workers like himself and has written for a number of online platforms. A week before his arrest, Malcolm gave a presentation to a large group of civil society organizations and trade unions about his experience of working in Qatar.

A coalition of organizations working on the rights of migrant workers in Qatar –, FairSquare, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Business & Human Rights Resource Centre – have contacted various Qatari authorities in the week since Malcolm’s detention. On 11 May a joint letter was sent to the Qatari authorities, urging them to investigate Malcolm’s disappearance as a matter of urgency. Late on 12 May, the government confirmed that Malcolm Bidali has been detained and is under investigation for violating Qatar’s security laws and regulations. However, the authorities have not yet disclosed his whereabouts. 

The organizations said:

 “Since arriving in Qatar three years ago Malcolm has been on the front line of the fight to reform Qatar’s labour laws, including by writing about his experiences as a migrant worker in the country. It has now been more than a week since anyone heard from Malcolm, and we are extremely concerned for his well-being, and that he may have been detained in reprisal for his legitimate human rights work.
“Despite our repeated requests to the Qatari authorities, we are still in the dark as to Malcolm’s location and the exact reason for his detention. We urge the authorities to disclose Malcolm’s whereabouts, and ensure he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment. Further, they must outline any internationally recognizable offense against him and ensure his right to due process is fully respected, including ensuring he has legal assistance. If Malcolm is detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, he must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

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Qatar and FIFA should respond to boycott calls with action

Qatar and FIFA should respond to boycott calls with action

Image courtesy of The Workers Cup film

In light of an investigation by The Guardian newspaper which detailed a troubling rate and number of unexplained migrant worker deaths in Qatar, FairSquare is calling on the Qatari authorities to put in place a series of protective measures to better protect the lives of low-paid migrant workers in the country.

The Guardian’s reporting has prompted supporters groups in Norway and Germany to call for their national teams to boycott Qatar 2022. Qatar has responded to The Guardian by saying that “the mortality rate among these [migrant worker] communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population.” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said that boycotts are “not the right approach” and that “engagement and dialogue is the only and the best way forward to make changes happen.” 

Individuals and organisations will form their own views about what approach to take. However, whatever position football associations choose to adopt on boycotts, it is undoubtedly the case that supporters making these calls are expressing legitimate concerns about issues of life and death. These should be taken seriously. The Qatari authorities should respond to supporters’ concerns with action on the issue of worker deaths, rather than making broad-brush, unsubstantiated claims. FIFA should make the case for such action publicly.

The Guardian found that there have been 6,750 deaths of migrants from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Qatar since 2010. It found that 69% of those deaths were effectively unexplained, as they did not include any reference to the underlying cause of death, instead using terms such as “natural causes” or “cardiac arrest.”

These findings are consistent with those of a diverse range of credible organisations that point to serious failings on this issue. In 2014, the Government of Qatar commissioned a major report by the law firm DLA Piper which found that the number of deaths attributed to cardiac arrest was “seemingly high” and recommended that the government commission an independent study into the issue. There is no evidence that any such investigation ever took place. In 2017, Human Rights Watch made a series of recommendations in relation to migrant worker deaths, calling on the Qatari authorities to: release data; conduct investigations; reform laws to protect workers from heat; and perform autopsies. None of these recommendations have ever been implemented. 

There are myriad factors that any investigation into unexplained deaths should consider, including working and living conditions, nutrition, air quality, and heat. In July 2019, a peer-reviewed paper published in Cardiology journal, authored by cardiologists, epidemiologists and heat-stress specialists, concluded that as many as 200 of 571 deaths of Nepalese workers in Qatar between 2009 and 2017 could have been prevented “if effective heat protection had been implemented as a part of local occupational health and safety programs.” In October 2019, a FAME laboratory report for the ILO and Qatari authorities found that the government’s existing heat measures – a blunt summer working hours ban – was “insufficient” to prevent heat stress. The ban was subsequently extended but remains demonstrably inadequate. As the FAME report detailed, the Supreme Committee has implemented heat mitigation measures on World Cup stadium projects additional to those afforded to the rest of the country’s workforce. Supreme Committee projects account for between 2 and 3 percent of all construction workers in Qatar. Nevertheless, deaths on Supreme Committee projects fall into a similar pattern, with many unexplained deaths of relatively young men, with no evidence of underlying health conditions.

In June 2019, FairSquare asked FIFA, in a letter, to call publicly on the Qatari authorities to commission an independent investigation into worker deaths. We provided analysis of the then available data on worker deaths and suggested that if the annual death rate was typical, the unexplained death toll in Qatar would far exceed 3000 since the country won the right to host the tournament in 2010. The Guardian’s 2021 reporting suggests the unexplained death toll exceeds 5,000. In 2020, FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory board said there was an “urgent need for FIFA to act” on concerns about “the number and nature of “non-work-related deaths” occurring in connection with FWC 2022 construction and more broadly in the country”, noting the lack of transparency on this issue beyond data presented by the Supreme Committee.

The Government of Qatar’s official response to The Guardian’s investigation was that “the mortality rate among these [migrant worker] communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population.” The statement asserts that, “there has been a consistent decline in the mortality rate as a result of the health and safety reforms we have introduced” and that, “as part of our efforts to reduce the mortality rate further, we have raised awareness of health risks such as smoking and an unhealthy diet.”

Qatar has never responded to repeated requests for data on this issue over many years, thereby precluding any useful or informed comparison of mortality statistics. More critically, it has failed to instigate a detailed investigation into migrant worker deaths without which it will be impossible to understand precisely how these workers are dying and what needs to be done to prevent more deaths.

Labour reform programme
Concerns about the rights of workers in Qatar have extended beyond the issue of worker deaths. Qatar entered into a programme of technical assistance with the International Labour Organization in 2017. Since then it has made a series of reforms, including abolishing the exit permit, introducing new processes for workers seeking compensation for wage theft, setting a national minimum wage, and passing a law giving domestic workers some labour rights in law. Of particular note is Qatar’s 2020 removal of restrictions on migrant workers changing jobs without their employer’s permission – the key element of its kafala system. 

While these and other measures certainly have the potential to transform its labour system, nevertheless there remain serious concerns around progress with implementation of several of these reforms. We draw attention to the analysis of groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, which provide credible and informed independent analysis. In particular:

Human Rights Watch’s August 2020 report which found that despite recent labour reforms, employers in Qatar still “frequently delay, withhold, or arbitrarily deduct workers’ wages…  often withhold contractually guaranteed overtime payments and end-of service benefits, and … regularly violate their contracts with migrant workers with impunity.” In the worst cases, workers told Human Rights Watch that employers simply stopped paying their wages, and they often struggled to feed themselves. 

Amnesty International’s November 2020 progress report, which concluded that Qatar “must ensure full implementation and enforcement of the reforms introduced to date, get serious about holding abusive employers to account, and take action to address major weaknesses in key areas” and “must also give particular attention to the situation faced by the country’s domestic workers, who face severe and widespread abuse away from the spotlight of the World Cup.”

– A report by from January 2021 detailing concerns about the implementation of the key September 2020 kafala reform, seemingly driven by the government’s desire to pre-empt a backlash from the country’s business community, which opposed the reform. Amnesty, among others, have raised concerns about recent proposals by Qatar’s Shura Council which would largely undo the kafala reform if they were approved.

– The Qatar country report published by the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism at the 44th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in July 2020. The report describes how, in Qatar “nationality and national origin entrench de facto castes among non-nationals according to which European, North American, Australian and Arab nationalities systematically enjoy greater human rights protections than South Asian and sub-Saharan African nationalities.” She also found that there is a “stratification of quality of life according to nationality and national origin” on a scale that “raises serious concerns of structural racial discrimination against non-nationals in Qatar.”

With respect to the deaths of migrant workers, Qatar should commit to transparently implementing, as soon as possible, the recommendations provided by Human Rights Watch in their September 2017 report on construction related deaths in Qatar:

– Release data on migrant worker deaths for the past five years, broken down by age, gender, occupation, and cause of death;
– Immediately replace the summer working hours ban with a legally binding requirement that employers adequately minimize the heat-stress risk to workers, including the prohibition of work at all times of unacceptable heat risk;
– Amend Law No. 2 of 2012 on Autopsy of Human Bodies to require medical examinations and allow forensic investigations, including autopsies if necessary, into all sudden or unexplained deaths; and
– Pass legislation to require that all death certificates include reference to a medically meaningful cause of death, such as a trauma, a disease, or a pathological process.

Qatar should also conduct a broader investigation into unexplained migrant worker deaths and include in its scope at a minimum the impact on workers’ health of poor housing, long working hours, the effectiveness of pre-departure medical examinations, and heat. 

In relation to labour reforms, the Government should move to implement the recommendations made by Amnesty International in its November 2020 progress report.

The unexplained deaths of migrant worker deaths are an issue of serious concern across the Gulf region. In January 2021, FairSquare launched a new research initiative into the deaths of Asian migrant workers in all six GCC countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The project will report later in 2021.

Download this statement in PDF

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Launch of Vital Signs project

New initiative to study deaths of migrant workers in the Gulf

FairSquare is launching the Vital Signs project, a new initiative to quantify and research the deaths of migrant workers in the six GCC states.

Nobody knows the true figure for many migrant workers die in the Gulf, or the causes of their deaths. But available statistics indicate it is many thousands of people every year, a large majority of working age.

Vital Signs, which is being supported by Humanity United, will run from 2021 to 2023. Each year of the project will see the publication of a statistical report, examining key trends related to the deaths of migrant workers from five Asian origin countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Philippines – in the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The reports will make tailored recommendations to governments and others.

Find out more about the Vital Signs project

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Business and human rights in Saudi Arabia

Guidance for businesses operating in Saudi Arabia

FairSquare has collaborated with Amnesty International on the production of new guidance for businesses operating in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been seeking support from international investors and businesses to help deliver its flagship Vision 2030, with its expansive development plans capped by a set of “giga-projects” designed to spearhead the development of whole new economic sectors.

The Amnesty briefing highlights six of the most salient human rights risks for companies to consider in Saudi Arabia, given the possibility of one or more of them intersecting with their business operations, activities or investments:

– the abuse of migrant worker rights;
– discrimination against women;
– risks linked to surveillance, data gathering and “smart cities”;
– risks linked to land, housing and development projects;
– risks to business partners; and
– war crimes in the conflict in Yemen.

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New FairSquare Policy Brief on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia

New Policy Brief on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia

Credit: Alamy

In a new policy brief released this month, FairSquare finds that the issue of migrant worker rights is likely to become ever more salient for the Saudi Arabian government in coming years.

With hundreds of thousands of migrants needed to construct the giga-projects that sit at the heart of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 strategic plan, international attention on this issue is certain to increase in the coming years. Until now migrant workers’ rights have rarely been given prominence, as external focus on the country has mainly centred around freedom of expression, women’s rights and the death penalty. Now flagship projects like Neom, the Red Sea Project and the leisure city of Qiddiya are likely to change all that.

FairSquare’s policy brief, the first in an occasional series, charts the inextricable links between Saudi Arabia’s continued struggle to find meaningful employment for its growing population of citizens and its historic reliance on migrants to staff the private sector. The kafala system, which holds migrants In a restrictive, abusive bind at the hands of their employers, has played an important role in creating and sustaining Saudi national identity, providing a constant demonstration of the enhanced status and standing of citizens as against foreigners. In parallel, businesses have developed a reliance on (an “addiction” to, some say)  migrants and the cheap convenience the kafala system guarantees.

Simply replacing migrants in the private sector with Saudis is unlikely to be feasible in the short term – in many sectors, there is still little overlap between work migrants are doing and the jobs that Saudis are qualified and willing to do. Nevertheless intensified Saudization in the past decade has meant a reduction in the number of migrant workers in the country, a trend sharpened by Covid-19. Such departures have routinely been enforced, accompanied by high levels of brutality, and migrants have increasingly been demonised in the Saudi media.

Ultimately, rather than relying on mass repatriations, the government will need to improve conditions for all workers in the private sector if it wants to entice more Saudis into the workforce and attract the skilled migrants it wants to help it deliver Vision 2030. That – combined with learnings from Qatar, which has come under intense scrutiny over migrant labour conditions and embarked on a reform programme in partnership with the ILO – may explain the government’s deepening engagement with international labour institutions, and rumblings throughout 2020 about the abolition of kafala. Just yesterday, a local newspaper repeated predictions that the government was set to abolish kafala, while the government is set to hold a press conference next week in which it will outline reforms to “increase the competitiveness, attractiveness and flexibility of the Saudi labor market in accordance with international standards”.

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FairSquare on Qatar’s labour reforms

Implementation the key for Qatar’s migrant labour reform

Credit: Omar Chatriwala

In an article written for, FairSquare director James Lynch has called on Qatar to accompany its reformed kafala (sponsorship) law with simple procedures and effective enforcement:

“This appears to be a significant step forward and goes beyond what any other Gulf country has attempted in terms of introducing labour mobility for migrant workers.  If (and only if) this change is accompanied by simple procedures for workers to follow and rigorous enforcement, it will make a tangible difference to workers’ rights. It will also be in the interest of responsible businesses. Employers that respect their employees’ rights and pay decent wages should start to gain a competitive advantage.”

FairSquare additionally stresses that workers’ rights don’t begin and end with kafala and urges the government to follow up this reform with measures on wage theft and working conditions, to protect the rights and safety of migrant workers.

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Premier League: Adopt Human Rights Policy

Premier League: Adopt Human Rights Policy

Credit: J. Pellgen

The English Premier League should respect human rights throughout all of its operations, including as it evaluates a bid by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to acquire Newcastle United FC, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare Projects said today. The Premier League and the Football Association should consider adopting a comprehensive human rights policy in line with the policy put in place by FIFA in 2017.

Human Rights Watch, in June 2020, and FairSquare, in April, separately wrote to the Premier League CEO, Richard Masters, outlining concerns around the prospective purchase by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The Premier League’s short responses, which contained identical language, failed to engage with the concerns raised about whether the buyer met the league’s own tests for prospective owners. The league also did not say whether it was taking Saudi Arabia’s human rights record into account when considering the sale, stating only that the sale to a “company based in Saudi Arabia” was subject to due processes that “cannot be conducted in public and on which we cannot comment.”

“The Premier League shouldn’t leave FIFA’s human rights policy to one side and ignore Saudi human rights abuses as it considers the sale of one of its clubs to the country’s sovereign wealth fund,” said Benjamin Ward, United Kingdom director at Human Rights Watch. “Adopting a comprehensive human rights policy and including human rights as a criterion for evaluating potential buyers of football clubs would set a positive example.”

On July 6, the United Kingdom introduced a new global human rights sanctions regime which included asset freezes and travel bans for 20 Saudi men connected to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Those designated include Saud al-Qahtani, a former close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is chairman of the Saudi Public Investment Fund.

The Saudi fund made its bid to acquire Newcastle United in January, but the Premier League has been considering the sale since then. On June 30, Masters appeared before the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee and said the potential sale was “complicated,” adding that, “when [approval processes] drag on sometimes there is a requirement for information.” It is unclear what information Masters was referencing.

Saudi Arabia has faced unprecedented scrutiny over its human rights abuses since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017. A November 2019 Human Rights Watch report “The High Cost of Change: Repression under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reform” documented how Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation to crown prince coincided with a reorganization of the country’s prosecution service and security apparatus, the primary tools of Saudi repression, placing them directly under the royal court’s oversight.

The Saudi authorities then began a series of arrest campaigns targeting independent clerics, public intellectuals, and prominent women’s rights activists. Women’s rights activists and others targeted have reported that the authorities tortured them in detention. Saudi Arabia is a UK Foreign Office priority country because of its poor human rights record.

In June 2019, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, released the findings of her investigation into the Khashoggi killing. Callamard found evidence that responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder extends beyond the 11 people tried for the murder in Saudi Arabia, and that the mission to execute Khashoggi required “significant government coordination, resources, and finances.” The special rapporteur determined that there is credible evidence warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for their role in the murder.

The crown prince also has served as Saudi Arabia’s defense minister since 2015, and since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented unlawful airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that have bombed homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. In November 2018, during Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Buenos Aires for the G20 Summit, the Argentine judiciary took steps to formally investigate his possible responsibility for war crimes in Yemen and alleged torture of Saudi citizens.

The Premier League already has a responsibility to respect human rights throughout all of its operations. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights sets out these responsibilities, including the expectation that businesses will adopt specific policies and conduct due diligence to identify any risks of contributing to human rights harms. Such harm may include conferring reputational benefits that help cover up human rights abuses. The Premier League’s current handbook does not include human rights under its “owners and directors test,” even though ownership of prominent football clubs by state entities or individuals close to state leaders is on the rise throughout Europe.

Under pressure from activists, fans, and sponsors, in 2017, FIFA amended its statutes, setting up a Human Rights Advisory Board and adopting a landmark Human Rights Policy that states “Human rights commitments are binding on all FIFA bodies and officials.” The new policy mandates that bidders to host FIFA events must map all human rights risks and provide a strategy to address them. It states that FIFA will embed respect for human rights in its member associations.

“The drawn-out saga of the Newcastle takeover bid has exposed the inadequacies of the Premier League’s current arrangements for assessing and managing human rights risks” said James Lynch, founding director of FairSquare. “A rigorous policy, drafted in good faith and with full institutional support for implementation, would go a long way to protecting the league in future.”

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Premier League should reject Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle FC

Call to disqualify proposed Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United FC

Credit: POMED

The Saudi-backed bid to take over Newcastle United FC should not be allowed to proceed, FairSquare has told the Premier League. In a letter to the League’s Chief Executive, the organisation argues that the conduct of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince – including in relation to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 – should be enough to disqualify the bid:

“Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the chairman of the Public Investment Fund, presents a demonstrable threat to the vitality, integrity and reputation of the English game and to the future of Newcastle United. We would encourage the Premier League to take this opportunity to outline a clear position in this regard, and one that prevents governments from taking control of English football clubs and running them for political ends.”

FairSquare finds that the Newcastle takeover bid fails the Premier League Owner and Director test on two grounds: under paragraph F1.6 in relation to the conduct of Mohamed bin Salman; and secondly under paragraph F1.2, with regard to Newcastle’s relationship with Sheffield United FC, in relation to the “power to determine or influence the management or administration of another Club.”

The human rights organisation has encouraged the Premier League to consult with UN experts, including those who investigated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and has offered to arrange a a private briefing from credible independent experts, including Saudi Arabian nationals.

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Covid-19 and migrant workers in the Gulf

NGO coalition calls on Gulf states to ensure protection of migrant workers during Covid-19 response

Credit: International Domestic Workers Federation

A coalition of trade unions and NGOs, including FairSquare Projects, has called on the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to take steps to ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection from Covid-19.

The groups are urging the Gulf governments to:
– Ensure equal access to testing and medical assistance for all workers, and to ensure that worker are not deterred from seeking assistance from fear of detention of deportation.
– Ensure sanctions imposed for violating quarantines do not include detention.
– Where possible, to seek input from national and sectoral trade unions; ensure that workers who are prevented from working continue to receive their wages and have an adequate standard of living. This includes monitoring businesses to ensure working conditions are safe and that businesses are implementing guidelines and requirements.
– Carry out public awareness-raising campaigns to ensure that workers, including domestic workers, do not face discrimination or stigma as a result of the pandemic.
– Ensure domestic workers are provided with access to timely and adequate healthcare, sick pay and protective equipment.

The call follows reports of a spike in cases of Covid-19 among migrant workers to the Gulf, largely attributed to poor and cramped living conditions, and a lack of adequate protective equipment. 

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FairSquare to take part in Toronto Quayside preliminary HRIA

FairSquare to take part in Toronto Quayside preliminary HRIA

FairSquare Research has been selected, as part of a consortium, to carry out the preliminary human rights impact assessment of Quayside Project in Toronto.

Element AI, a Montreal-based artificial intelligence company, is leading the consortium, which also includes Ravi Naik, a respected litigation and subject matter expert in privacy, data protection and human rights. The preliminary human rights impact assessment has been commissioned by Waterfront Toronto.

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