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4 Oct 2022

Mallak Ali, Gulf Research Assistant, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Company efforts to protect workers in the Gulf from heat stress are failing

“His job was stressful, the car he drove was old and the engine overheated all the time. He told them the heat in the car was unbearable. They didn’t listen.”

Kalleda was one of thousands of migrant workers in the Gulf for whom extreme heat played a role in making their living and working conditions unbearable. As the region swelters in year-round extreme heat, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 50 degrees Celsius at the peak of summer, there is an urgent need for preventative measures to tackle heat stress among workers – as well as the insufficient health and safety workplace protections exacerbated by it.

Since 2016, we have been tracking the alleged abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf region private sector. Our data has revealed those primarily from South Asia and East Africa, who are working in the construction and security sectors, remain disproportionately affected by death and injuries caused by extreme heat. In June 2022, a BBC news investigation revealed that out of 571 Nepali worker deaths in Qatar over an eight-year period, almost a third could be attributed to heat stress. These figures are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. The Vital Signs Project, which investigates migrant worker deaths in the Gulf, found deaths of otherwise healthy and young migrant workers remain underreported and under-investigated in the region. They also found these are often dismissed as “natural”, even when evidence suggests otherwise, with autopsies being the exception, not the rule.

The Gulf has attracted attention in recent years for winning unprecedented bids to host some of the world’s most celebrated events, such as Expo 2020 Dubai, Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the upcoming Qatar 2022 World Cup. Besides significant economic opportunities, the Qatar World Cup has also prompted international scrutiny on the labour conditions of the migrant workers. For the first time in the tournament’s history, games will take place during the northern hemisphere’s winter months to allow teams and spectators to participate in comfort. However, the same choice was not afforded to migrant workers, who have been toiling throughout the rest of the year to make the World Cup a reality come November. As reports emerge of increasingly unbearable temperatures due to climate change, concerns over shielding workers from the heat are rising.

Summer midday work bans have been the primary protective measure for workers suffering from heat stress in the Gulf, with the UAE being the first to pass a law in 2005. Bans dictate workers should not be made to work outside when sunlight and temperatures peak in the summer months. The ban starts at noon, or shortly after, for most Gulf countries, except in Qatar and Kuwait, where bans start at 10am and 11am, respectively. On paper, companies’ compliance with work bans is verified through periodic governmental inspections, with violators facing hefty fines and potential business closure. Authorities consider this intervention very effective, with reported compliance rates reaching 99%. However, investigations have shown the start and end times of the work bans are not based on reliable climate data. Although some reports credit Qatar with having a more rigorous method to set start and end times, data reveals temperatures in Qatar have started rising to dangerous levels as early as 9AM.

Another shortcoming of the work ban is its exclusion of workers from key economic sectors in the Gulf, namely oil and gas and road maintenance, where workers are expected to continue working through the work ban hours. Moreover, as the work bans came to an end in September 2022, worksite inspections revealed hundreds of employers violated the mandated work ban in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar . This suggests work bans not only fail to protect workers across all industries but were inadequately or improperly implemented by employers or enforced by authorities.

Multinational companies winning lucrative tenders and securing contracts for projects associated with mega events find a pretext in poor law enforcement on standards to protect workers in the Gulf. Violations of the summer midday work bans and allegations of heat stress affecting migrant workers have been recorded in numerous sectors which are cornerstones to mega events. Where legislative gaps persist, businesses have a responsibility to implement additional measures protecting workers from rising temperatures. Given the overt risks to workers associated with operating in the Gulf, businesses must do better. Masking inaction as adherence to local laws is not acceptable – firms and investors looking to do business in the region have a three-fold human rights responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: set policies embedded in human rights, undertake rigorous due diligence processes and provide workers with access to remedy when their rights are violated.

by Mallak Ali, Gulf Research Assistant, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre