A new investigation by Amnesty International has exposed how an engineering company involved in building 2022 FIFA World Cup infrastructure took advantage of Qatar’s notorious sponsorship system to exploit scores of migrant workers. The company, Mercury MENA, failed to pay its workers thousands of dollars in wages and work benefits, leaving them stranded and penniless in Qatar.
The organization is calling for the Qatari government to ensure former employees of Mercury MENA receive the money they earned, and to fundamentally reform the “kafala” sponsorship system that has allowed numerous companies to exploit migrant workers, as documented by Amnesty International and others since 2013.
“In 2017 the Qatari government was applauded after announcing a programme of labour reforms. But even as this agreement was being signed, scores of Mercury MENA employees were stranded without pay in squalid accommodation, wondering where their next meal would come from and if they’d ever be able to return home to their families,” said Steve Cockburn, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
“Many Mercury MENA employees had made huge sacrifices and taken out ruinous loans to take jobs in Qatar. They ended up working unpaid for months on end and were let down by a system which failed to protect them. By ensuring they get the wages which they are owed, Qatar can help these migrant workers to rebuild their lives and show that it is serious about improving workers’ rights.”
Between October 2017 and April 2018 Amnesty International interviewed 78 former Mercury MENA employees from India, Nepal and the Philippines, who are owed huge sums by the company. In Nepal, where more than a third of the population lives on less than US$2 a day, Amnesty International interviewed 34 people who are owed, on average, US$2,035 each.
Mercury MENA was formerly known as Mercury Middle East, and had played a important part in constructing a showcase stadium central to Qatar’s winning presentation to FIFA in December 2010. Since then, migrant workers employed by the company worked on some of Qatar’s most prestigious projects, including the ‘Future City’ of Lusail which will host the opening and closing games of the World Cup, Others worked on the Barwa al Baraha workers’ accommodation complex – ironically promoted by Qatar as a sign of improving conditions for migrant workers.
Persistent failure to pay wages
Most of the former Mercury MENA employees interviewed by Amnesty International were owed between US$1,370 and US$2,470 (QAR 5,000 and 9,000) in salaries and benefits.
The organization’s research found that there were delays with Mercury MENA paying salaries from about February 2016 onwards, and that delays became more persistent and unresolved in 2017. The company also failed to provide legally required residence permits to workers, which led to fines that placed additional restrictions on their ability to move jobs or leave the country. In at least one case the company refused a workers’ request to return home by denying him an ‘exit permit’.
Under Qatar’s sponsorship system, companies have had the power to prevent workers from leaving the country or changing jobs, limiting their options to escape abuse or challenge their treatment. The ‘exit permit’ requirement was removed for most workers in September 2018.
Ernesto, from the Philippines, worked as a piping foreman for Mercury MENA in Lusail City, a US$45 billion project. When he left Qatar after two years he was owed four months of wages and in greater debt than when he arrived. Ernesto is keenly aware of the contrast between the exploitation he suffered and the lucrative projects he worked on, and told Amnesty International:
“I’m imagining things during [the World Cup]…People from all over the world cheering, laughing, touring some of the beautiful stadiums, recreational sites and hotels here… Will they ever think ‘what are the stories behind those structures?’”
Nepali workers caught in debt trap
Amnesty International has conducted further research on Mercury MENA’s Nepali employees, interviewing 34 of them after they returned home and highlighting how the Nepali government’s lax regulations contributed to their exploitation. Recruitment agencies hired by Mercury MENA illegally charged workers high fees for their jobs, compelling them to take out high interest loans. This pushed them into severe debt that made it difficult for workers to escape or challenge exploitative conditions.
Some Nepali workers interviewed by Amnesty International had been forced to sell land or take their children out of school in order to pay the debts they incurred to pay for their migration to Qatar.
One agency admitted to Amnesty International that it had knowledge of incidents of labour rights abuse at Mercury MENA, after it had recruited workers for the company, but did not follow-up with the workers to ensure their labour rights were being respected, despite being contacted for help. No measures have been taken against this agency by the Nepali government. Amnesty International has previously documented how the continuing failure of the Nepali authorities to curtail the illegal conduct of recruitment agencies has enabled the abuse of Nepali migrant workers abroad.
The Nepali authorities also failed to provide adequate assistance to their nationals in Qatar – for example in 2017 when Nepali Mercury MENA employees found themselves stranded in a workers camp lacking food or money having not been paid for months. The Nepali authorities were made aware of this situation on at least four separate occasions – twice by workers themselves and twice by Amnesty International, but ignored their pleas for help to recover their wages or return home. This is despite the existence of a US$38 million Migrant Worker Welfare Fund. Even today the Nepal government has not blacklisted Mercury MENA, which means there is nothing stopping it from recruiting Nepali migrants in the future.
Despite the promise of major reforms in 2017, and the abolition of the exit permit for most migrant workers early this month, Qatar’s labour laws still do not comply with international standards. Employers can still prevent workers from changing jobs in Qatar, sometimes for up to five years. Workers who change jobs without the permission of their employers are accused of “absconding”, a criminal charge leading to possible detention and deportation. Promised reforms to create a fund for workers in difficulty, and to set a new minimum wage, are expected in the future.
Both Nepal and Qatar have roles to play in remedying the harm suffered by former Mercury MENA employees, and in ensuring that this kind of exploitation does not happen again. Nepal and Qatar are obliged to protect migrant workers from abuse under a range of international treaties they have ratified, including the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention, and to provide remedy for abuses including unpaid wages.
Amnesty International is calling on the Nepal and Qatar governments to support the former Mercury MENA workers to get justice and receive the money that they are owed, and to take steps to prevent similar cases from arising in the future.
“There is a major opportunity for Qatar to transform its record on workers’ rights ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and providing full compensation to Mercury MENA’s workers would be an important sign that the authorities are willing to grasp it. With many former employees already considering migrating again to pay off debts, there is no time to waste,” said Steve Cockburn.
“Sadly, the exploitation of migrant workers by Mercury MENA is not an isolated case. We will continue to pressure the Qatar authorities until promises of overhauling the sponsorship system are delivered, and workers’ rights are fully protected both in law and practice.”
Mercury MENA’s response
In November 2017 Amnesty International spoke to the CEO of Mercury MENA, who acknowledged long-standing pay delays but denied exploiting workers. He said that Mercury MENA had been the victim of unscrupulous business partners resulting in “cashflow problems” and a number of disputes over payments with contractors and clients.
Documented communications between Mercury MENA and its workers show that the company’s management were fully aware of the problems with salary payments, and continued to make promises to pay wages that were ultimately not kept.
Amnesty sent further emails to Mercury MENA’s CEO in December 2017 and January 2018 requesting information about their situation and what actions they were taking, as well as a letter in July 2018 summarizing the key points of our investigation, to which no response was provided.