Campaigner’s view: Glasgow Group Qatar protest

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Leader of Anti-Slavery Glasgow Group Laura Wood on her experience campaigning for the rights of migrant workers in Qatar.

Laura Wood (left) with her colleagues at the protest

17 June 2016

I had heard through the grapevine about the Institution of Civil Engineers holding a lecture on the construction of Qatari stadiums. The construction of infrastructure for the Qatar World Cup has been cited in the context of deaths of thousands of migrant workers as well as various other human rights abuses.

The lecture was being held at the Technology and Innovation department of the University of Strathclyde. This was a perfect place and opportunity for Anti-Slavery International, along with other groups, including Unison, to ask engineers to consider their role in the perpetuation of slavery-like conditions in the construction of the Qatar World Cup infrastructure and venues.

On Thursday June 9th at 5pm there were only 5 of us protesting outside the venue but we got to really engage with people going into the conference (around 100 in attendance) and people on the street. One memorable chat was with a Civil Engineering student who had no idea about the human rights issues in GCC countries. Everyone was interested to learn more.

Anti-Slavery International has asked the Qatari government to end the Kafala system that facilitates forced labour. Migrant workers have to ask permission to get an Exit Visa in order to be able to leave the country, and are not allowed to join a union. We were asking ICE to demand that workers be allowed to form worker committees without retribution. We also asked that the ICE be transparent in all processes.

Sara Thiam, the Regional Director of ICE was inclusive and welcoming. She ushered us into the meeting. Sara made a welcome speech before the lecture, which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been there. The speech was regarding ethics and that we were welcome to be there so they could hear our opinions. They were delighted to hear that the Director of Anti-Slavery International, Aidan McQuade, had also trained as a Civil Engineer. And, that they would be happy to work with us in the future.

The speaker for the evening was Jim Burridge for Arup. In his lecture he mentioned that the workers had had problems with heat “and other things but I’ll not go into that now.”

I got to ask a question. I asked:

“You’ve considered the culture and climate conditions of Qatar thoroughly through such things as the drainage system, wind, temperature, concern about the sun getting in spectators eyes. Did you consider the Qatar laws and culture of the Kafala system which perpetuate workers’ exploitation, slavery and death of workers on the construction of the stadium as thoroughly as you did the weather?

You didn’t want to get into how it was built and the temperature the workers are working in, is that because people are dying in the process? Did you not want to get into it because the workers were not allowed to leave the country because they were being denied an exit visa?  Or allowed to change job or join a union? Or is it just the basic awful living conditions that you didn’t want to talk about?”

I said it in a polite and firm tone.

He said “Yes, but I’ll not get into that now.”

Ms Thiam took the microphone and answered my question for Mr Burridge! The answer was some more ethical practices chat and that she is looking forward to working with ASI. Again.

I was very disappointed that he would not be answering my question. How exactly had they considered these things? Marie Claire, from our group, had her hand up to ask but was denied the chance as we were out of time.

I’m happy with how the evening went, that they were inclusive and welcoming, that I got to ask my question in front of a room full of Civil Engineers who will hopefully think a bit about it on their next project. And also that Anti-Slavery Director is in touch with the ICE now to connect about supply chains.

My attention, however, will not be diverted while migrant workers human rights are being abused. I’m disappointed that our questions were not answered directly and that we were out of time. Unfortunately for Migrant workers in Qatar, they are also running out of time.