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Qatar migrant worker death rate rings alarm bells worldwide

Dilip Khalsa with his mother and niece. The family claims it is being pressurized by the Indian government to claim the body of Khalsa’s brother Jitendra who died in Qatar. Photo: S Kumar/MintPremium
Dilip Khalsa with his mother and niece. The family claims it is being pressurized by the Indian government to claim the body of Khalsa’s brother Jitendra who died in Qatar. Photo: S Kumar/Mint

Qatar has become a focal point since separate probes highlighted poor working conditions, bonded labour, and government and company indifference

New Delhi: Jitendra Khalsa was a devout Sikh. A non-smoker, he didn’t drink and seemed in the best of health. On 11 September 2013, Khalsa left for Qatar to work for a large oil and gas company, according to his brother Dilip. A little over two months later, Dilip was informed that his brother had died suddenly. Official records said the cause of death was respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. Apparently Khalsa died at the Doha International Airport. He was 38 years old.

“The company called us 24 hours after my brother’s death and informed that he was on his way home when he had the heart attack, at the airport. It is quite unlike him to not call us beforehand and inform about coming home," said Dilip.

“His passport was still with the company and his luggage was in his room, as we later found out from other workers who managed to get back to India. The company said they took him to the hospital, but we now know that none of the hospitals have records of my brother being admitted."

Desperate for information, Khalsa’s family is refusing to receive his body until an autopsy is conducted and airport CCTV footage is provided to them. They cannot understand how Jitendra Khalsa could have dropped dead so suddenly. His body remains in a mortuary in Doha, and the family claims it is being pressurized by the Indian government to sign a “no-objection certificate" and claim the body.

In response, Sanjiv Arora, India’s ambassador to Qatar, said a medical examiner’s report had been filed with the embassy, listing the cause of death as natural, and that the family had asked for a formal enquiry to take place. “I fully respect the family’s decision," he said.

It may never be clear whether Jitendra Khalsa’s death was indeed the result of a heart attack, but the story his family tells is consistent with many of the accounts from bereaved families of migrant labourers working in Qatar and other West Asian countries, according to human rights groups.

In recent months, data on the death rate of migrant workers in the Gulf has caused worldwide alarm.

Qatar, which is hosting the Fifa World Cup in 2022, has become a focal point for the issue since separate investigations by The Guardian newspaper, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International highlighted poor working conditions, bonded labour, and indifference on the part of the government of Qatar and construction companies as reasons for the high rate of deaths.

Whila Fifa has stuck by its decision to hold the football World Cup in Qatar, the organization has agreed to give the issue of worker conditions a much higher status in the future.

Qatar’s construction boom predates the World Cup preparations, however. Since the beginning of the decade, the population has swollen with migrant workers, mainly male labourers but also female domestic workers, from all over South Asia moving to the country for work. According to data from an Indian government official, the death rate of Indian migrants was equally high in the years preceding the World Cup allocation.

It is also possible that the death rate of immigrant workers in Qatar is comparable with that in other West Asian countries, although this would simply mean that the problem spans the entire region—as indeed, many activists have claimed for years—and not that the fatality rates in Qatar are normal and acceptable, as the Qatari and Indian governments have described them to be.

Death watch

The numbers of migrant deaths are difficult to confirm, as Qatar offers no statistics on the deaths of its migrant workers, who make up 94% of the country’s workforce and 70% of its total population, according to figures from its 2010 census. Most migrant workers are from countries in South Asia: India, Nepal and Bangladesh. There were an estimated 500,000 Indians in Qatar at the end of 2012.

The Guardian investigation of September 2013 quoted official data from the Indian embassy in Doha as showing that since the World Cup had been awarded to Qatar in December 2010, there were 717 recorded Indian deaths. From 233 deaths in 2010, the number rose to 239 in 2011, 237 in 2012 and 241 in 2013, the investigation found. According to a government of India official, the figure for 2009 was higher: 262.

Since the start of 2014, 37 more migrant workers from India have died, according to the embassy in Doha.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) claims that these figures do not capture the gravity of the situation.

Tim Noonan, head of campaigns at ITUC, says that because all Indian migrants are not registered with the embassy, the real figure is likely to be higher. “Qatar itself incredibly keeps no statistics (on migrant deaths)," Noonan said. “For a very rich country, it’s hard to believe. When asked by The Guardian for our assessment in 2013, we informed them that according to the trend data only concerning India and Nepal, a conservative estimate would be that some 4,000 migrant workers would die before the first ball was kicked," he said.

In response to the media reports, the embassy in Doha, in a statement on Wednesday, called the number of deaths “quite normal".

“Most of the deaths are by natural causes," the statement said. “It is inappropriate to use these figures in a distorted manner." Arora added that the deaths included all categories of Indians living in Qatar. When asked why the embassy does not keep details of deceased Indian migrants, Arora said that the onus for registration with the embassy is on the individual, and that the embassy receives information on deaths from either the employer or the family of the deceased.

The press release mentioned some 13,906 complaints registered since 2010 by the Indian community in Qatar.

The response from the Qatari government was similar. The head of the National Human Rights Committee, Ali bin Sumaikh al-Marri, told AFP: “If we look at the numbers of Qataris who died...of natural causes over the past two years, we see that numbers of deaths among the Indian community are normal," he said of a death rate that averaged 20 workers per month, peaking in August to 27. “Indians make up the largest community in Qatar...twice the number of Qatari nationals."

Al-Marri, however, did not account for a comparison of a national death rate across all age groups and a presumably healthier demographic of young Indian men who come to work as labourers.

A request for comment to the National Human Rights Committee went unanswered.

“The death numbers are excessively high," said Noonan. “Academic studies put the rates at eight times higher than countries of similar wealth. We know that the demographic of the national population in Qatar is entirely dissimilar to the Indian population. Comparing apples and pears does nobody any good to hear."

Noonan concluded: “What we need is a proper study. No autopsies are conducted with often no explanations given to the families. There’s an absence of responsibility and it’s a form of modern slavery."

Cause of death

Over two visits in 2012 and 2013, Amnesty International interviewed 210 male workers on the construction sites for the World Cup.

The resulting report concluded that the working conditions for migrant labourers were extremely dangerous. Interviewees reported fainting in the sun under temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius. Overcrowded living arrangements were described as “inhuman"; no access to sanitation facilities and poor quality or even dangerous food were noted as added health hazards.

Injuries from frequent accidents on the building sites went untreated, they said, and pay was cut for sickness. As a result, labourers said they continued to turn up for work even with high fevers.

“It is better to take some extra burden rather than to take up a fight with them," said a Nepalese worker quoted in the Amnesty report.

Noonan and the ITUC had flagged these issues back in December 2010, when the World Cup was awarded to Doha. But, he said, the warning went unheeded for the most part. “When the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, we immediately understood what it meant: a massive construction boom, which, if no changes to Qatar’s labour laws happened, would mean a World Cup based on exploitation, injury and death," Noonan said.

“In 2012, the Indian embassy in Doha registered concern about heatstroke among Indian migrant workers. What we see from Qatar now is denial, maybe even a cover-up."

One of the principle complaints levelled at the Qatari government by human rights groups is the existence of the “kafala" system, which ties workers to their employers. Under the scheme, a migrant worker may not leave the country without the express permission of their employers; passports are often confiscated to ensure this.

“There are diverse causes of death all related to the working conditions or the labour camps," said Noonan. “So-called cardiac arrest is very often written down as a cause without any justification. Traffic accidents are common. In Qatar, the employer has total control, so they also have total responsibility."

India’s response

The question of whether India’s own migrant workers, who come from rural areas all over the country to work on construction in the metros, experience better working conditions than those who travel abroad is hard to answer.

While Indian workers have the right to unionize and to engage in collective bargaining, unlike their counterparts in Qatar, working conditions can often be hazardous at home.

In August 2010, Delhi Metro Rail Corp. submitted a list of 109 worker deaths since its inception in an affidavit, during the hearing on an item of public interest litigation filed in the Delhi high court by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) on workers’ conditions.

The total number of deaths of workers at construction sites during the Commonwealth Games preparation is much more difficult to pinpoint, with estimates ranging from seven to 147 as was claimed by Moushumi Basu, a member of PUDR, in a 2012 column in The Hindu.

Activists have long been calling for the Qatari government to reform the system by which it monitors its migrants. Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch says that the government’s efforts have been partial.

“While India has joined the Colombo Process, it should join other countries, particularly from South Asia to launch a protection initiative. Migrant worker remittances contribute significantly to the Indian economy, and the Indian government, " Ganguly said.

The Colombo Process is a multilateral process on the management of workers and contract labourers who travel overseas to work.

For Jitendra Khalsa’s brother Dilip, however, the response from the authorities has been hopelessly inept. He says the government has abandoned his family and his brother.

“Over the past three months, I have knocked on every door for justice. I have written to President, Prime Minister, MEA (ministry of external affairs), even the Gurudwara Committee," he said.

“If our people, our government does not help us, who will we turn to?"

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