Organisation criticises trade minister Greg Hands for failing to highlight abuse of migrant workers during trip to trade event
Human rights groups have criticised a UK trade minister for travelling to Qatar to seek contracts for British companies before the 2022 World Cup without apparently highlighting the abuses faced by migrant workers building venues for the event.
Greg Hands, junior minister at the Department for International Trade, was in Qatar on Wednesday for a conference in Doha called Sport is Great, billed as an opportunity “for UK companies to meet with key decision-makers and buyers actively looking to procure services to support projects in the run-up to the 2022 Fifa World Cup”.
Amnesty International said it was “extremely disappointing” that Hands had not spoken out about human rights ahead of the visit, saying Qatar’s construction sector was “rife with abuse”.
Human Rights Watch said Hands seemed to be making an “obsequious sales pitch”, and that UK companies should beware of the risks to reputation of involvement in Qatar’s construction boom.
The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar has proved hugely controversial, particularly the treatment of the thousands of foreign workers, mainly from south Asian nations, many of whom have been put up in squalid accommodation, had their pay withheld or delayed, and their passports confiscated.
Fifa faces legal action in the Swiss courts over its alleged complicity in the mistreatment, amid calls for football’s world governing body to move the 2022 tournament away from the Gulf state.
Hands’ department said it would check whether the minister planned to raise any human rights concerns with his hosts. However, Hands did not mention them in an article published on Wednesday in the Peninsula, an English language newspaper in Qatar.
The article praised the absolute monarchy’s “ambitious sporting vision” in securing the World Cup, as well as last month’s cycling Road World Championships, and the World Athletics Championships in 2019.
“This is an exciting time for Qatar’s vision, and the UK has the opportunity to be a strategic partner to ensure all these events are as successful as possible for spectators, competitors and organisers alike,” Hands wrote, saying Britain had a “world-leading capability in delivering global sports events”.
Hands ended the article by saying he was “looking forward to touring some of the sites where nations will be pinning their hopes of World Cup victory in 2022”, adding that he took great pride in the involvement of UK companies in the endeavour.
Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said: “Greg Hands’ job involves banging the drum for trade, but it’s extremely disappointing he couldn’t find room in his article to make even a passing mention of the dangerous and exploitative conditions many of the migrant labourers building Qatar’s gleaming new sports venues find themselves in.
“The stadiums, roads and other infrastructure for World Cup 2022 are being constructed by often poorly paid people from places like India and Nepal – migrant workers who routinely have their passports confiscated and regularly work excessively long hours in intolerably hot and dangerous conditions.
“Qatar’s construction sector is rife with abuse, as we and others have been highlighting for years. We’d like Mr Hands to raise this with his hosts in Doha and show he understands that the 2022 World Cup shouldn’t be based on violating the human rights of hundreds of thousands of exploited workers.”
Nicholas McGeehan, the Qatar, UAE and Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s understandable that the UK government wants to ensure British companies get as many construction and engineering contracts as possible, but Greg Hands should be mindful of the fact that Qatar’s construction market poses serious legal and reputational risks to UK firms on account of the Qatari government’s stubborn refusal to meaningfully reform its labour system or investigate an alarming pattern of unexplained migrant worker deaths.
“The minister’s article reads like an obsequious sales pitch, but in that sense it is fairly consistent with the UK government’s approach to the Gulf states.”