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Posted On: 1 June 2013 09:51 am
Updated On: 12 November 2020 02:13 pm

Guidelines none too soon

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Following the release of a handbook of guidelines by the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) on housing construction workers at project sites, some private sector officials familiar with labour camps are wondering why the NHRC did not develop the guidelines earlier. Some argue the NHRC has been “too late” in framing the guidelines, which they say only speak about makeshift labour lodgings while ignoring bigger problems in permanent labour accommodations. Although Qatar’s Labour Law sets high standards for workers’ rights, many developers, contractors and construction companies violate the law by ignoring the safety of their employees, said Dr Mohammed bin Saif Al Kuwari, member of the NHRC’s board of directors. Common violations include unhygienic conditions, poor sewerage systems, lack of safety measures — the most common of which is uncovered electric wires — and tens of workers housed in one room. Al Kuwari said that since the launch of the handbook a few days ago, many companies had called him asking for a copy. “We have sent a copy to the Ministry of Labour and we are in the process of distributing the book among construction and contracting companies,” he said. A project manager working with a heavy equipment company said, requesting anonymity: “The human rights committee was established many years ago, why is it that they have issued guidelines only now?” He said that because of the nature of his work he regularly visited construction sites and labour camps, where, he claimed, he often found many people huddled in small rooms. A lot of sanitary and safety issues were linked to cramped accommodations, and many companies were reluctant to do anything about it because of the expense involved, he said. The NHRC guidelines ban bunk beds, a common feature in almost all camps, and call for housing only four workers in a room that must have at least four square metres of free space. According to the guidelines, construction and contracting companies will have to sign a written undertaking at the time of submitting formal requests to recruit workers. Admitting that the guidelines should have come out earlier, Jaber Al Huwail, a legal adviser at the NHRC, said the organisation wanted to publish the handbook only after conducting extensive surveys at camp sites in coordination with the authorities. Asked why the focus was only on makeshift labour camps, Al Huwail said there had been many complaints regarding them. “Many workers are now being moved from residential areas to new, temporary shelters, and there were also plans to establish a new industrial area.” Al Kuwari said conditions at permanent and temporary labour lodgings were not very different, except that at permanent labour camps problems such as those related to electricity and water supply were bigger. Al Huwail said the NHRC received complaints from labourers as well as international human rights bodies, after which it immediately launched investigations into serious issues. He said that at best some construction and contracting companies met 95 percent of the safety standards set by the Ministry of Labour. “There is no company that fulfils the criteria 100 percent.” A senior official of a construction company that has some 3,000 workers at different sites said the majority of companies did not want to score low on the Ministry of Labour’s grading system. “The ministry has a very stringent grading system and any minor accident on a site would instantly result in the company receiving negative points,” he said. Scoring high on the ministry’s assessment scale is crucial for companies vying to get a share of upcoming mega infrastructure development projects. In fact, many companies are in the process of improving the living standards of their workers so that they can request the ministry to send its inspectors and upgrade their rating. A project manager said workers accommodated at construction sites in areas such as Ras Laffan and Lusail enjoyed the best facilities, with some camps having special areas for sports and recreational activities.