The visit to Qatar in early June by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially his publicized meal with Indian migrant workers in the West Asian nation long beset by accusations of labour abuse, was a welcome step. It was good to see an Indian prime minister mix energy cooperation with Qatar and an invitation for Qatari investment in India with a display of solidarity with Indian workers, a sort of we-are-looking-out-for-you message. India’s workers have been as abused here as many others from South Asia—certainly Nepal—and South-east Asia.

I was reminded of it when an update arrived earlier this week from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), an aggregator with sharp eyes in this still-maturing field. The UK-based watchdog discussed a new initiative: Migrant Workers in Gulf Construction. Available at business-humanrights.org, it is an interactive platform that aims to track construction companies on their performance and action related to migrant workers’ rights in the Persian Gulf region. Based on a survey, it includes their direct involvement as contractors, or on account of links through business associates.

BHRRC correctly claims that the “construction industry has managed to avoid being at the centre of reporting on this issue, but this is changing, with recent reports tying allegations of migrant-worker mistreatment" by several transnational firms working on sports-related projects in Qatar and other large projects in the Persian Gulf region.

The focus is on companies engaged in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and this includes India-based and regionally expansive businesses Larsen and Toubro Ltd (L&T) and Shapoorji Pallonji & Co. Ltd. They join several West Asian companies, and global construction-engineering heavyweights such as Bechtel Corp., Daewoo E&C, Hyundai E&C, Samsung C&T, Carillion Plc, SNC Lavalin Group Inc. and Obayashi Corp. BHRRC says it plans to reach 100 construction and related companies for its tracker. The survey has thus far reached 47.

The Qatar focus is obvious. Qatar continues to be pilloried for creating infrastructure for the football World Cup in 2022 on the back of slave-like treatment of guest workers and their frequent injuries and deaths. The country with Dubai-like economic visibility ambition has gone on overdrive to secure positive optics (see Human rights: the Doha round, 22 April 2016). BHRRC highlights its UAE concerns as those associated, for example, with construction projects like Al Saadiyat, a massive Dubai-redux tourism- and leisure-island initiative by the Tourism Development and Investment Co., Abu Dhabi.

BHRRC reiterates the logic for its tracker by highlighting the sponsorship system, or kafala, which “governs the recruitment, employment, and residency of migrant workers in host countries" and is the leading cause of workers being “vulnerable to exploitation". Such exploitation and abuse include “late and non-payment of wages, high recruitment fees, passport retention, restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and harsh working and living conditions". Harsh enough for numerous workers, including from India, to die.

The survey contains queries (see BHRRC’s website) on a range of subjects and issues, from a company’s human rights policy to workers’ safety including sub-contracted workers, from conditions of their employment and their protection and well-being, to remedy for grievances.

The urgent necessity of the tracker is reflected by the proportion of non-responses. As of its advisory on 8 June, BHRRC says of the 47 companies reached in the initial phase, 10 have responded and five more issued statements. Ten declined the survey. The remaining 22 are yet to respond—L&T and Shapoorji Pallonji among them. The Indian companies join their Asian colleagues from South Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia and—an unsurprising reality—the Persian Gulf region. Companies from Germany, Austria, Spain and the US have also thus far remained either unresponsive, declined to respond, or cited reasons such as projects being on hold at present—as Bechtel has for a project in Qatar.

This is dismal, but hardly unsurprising for a sector that has opted easily for handsome earnings over what I imagine are humdrum ethics. There is also the matter of countries encouraging the flow of migrant workers to West Asia to combat unemployment at home, and twin it with earnings that migrant workers repatriate. Such countries often paper over methods employed by unscrupulous recruiters at home that form the first step in the cycle of exploitation. It all needs a nudge—even a handsome shove—to clean up. But, perhaps those with glossy brochures and nifty websites advertising great business acumen alongside much care for human resources have an obligation greater than others.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear. Hold. Build: Hard Lessons Of Business And Human Rights In India, Red Sun: Travels In Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys Through A Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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