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Building Accountability for Construction Workers' Rights in the Middle East: New Foundations

Mariam Bhacker and Alia Hindawi, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

As the launch of the Building Responsibly Principles marks an important milestone for an industry that has been slow to respond to rampant and systemic violations of workers' rights in its value chains, we look to assess how companies are protecting vulnerable workers in the Middle East.

New industry-led call to action

Last week, six engineering and construction companies – Bechtel, Fluor, Jacobs, Multiplex, Vinci and Wood - launched the Building Responsibly Worker Welfare Principles to promote the rights and welfare of workers throughout the industry. The 10 Principles are intended to establish a common, global baseline for the treatment of engineering and construction workers by companies.

The launch of the Principles is an important milestone for an industry that has been slow to tackle labour rights issues. According to the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery and Child Labour, the construction sector employs the highest number of workers under conditions of forced labour, second only to domestic work.

A vulnerable workforce

In Qatar, where the construction sector has faced mounting international scrutiny over the treatment of workers, over a thousand migrant workers are reportedly struggling to secure months’ worth of unpaid wages and renew expired visas after their employer, HKH General Contracting, failed to do so. Reliant on food donations from local charities, and with only intermittent access to running water and electricity in company housing, workers’ complaints to national authorities and the International Labour Organization (ILO) office in Qatar since March have not yet led to a public resolution. The company and its clients have also failed to respond publicly to these allegations.

By committing to the Principles, responsible businesses have an opportunity to counter the enormous scale of labour abuse and human rights violations in the sector, working collectively to establish common, enforceable industry standards and to advance best practice. This is particularly important with respect to migrant workers and refugees whose legal and economic status means that they are often disproportionately subject to abuse. In Jordan, for example, the minimum wage for migrant construction workers is two-thirds of that for Jordanian workers. Similarly in Lebanon, seventy percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line, meaning that workers are often compelled to work under unfavourable and dangerous conditions to scrape a living.

Driving accountability

By some estimates, the Middle East’s construction sector is the largest and fastest growing in the world. This fast growth has reinforced the sector’s already heavy reliance on migrants and refugees to fill gaps in the construction workforce, but little is known or disclosed about how companies are protecting these especially vulnerable workers in their regional operations and supply chains.

To raise awareness of companies’ responsibility to respect workers’ rights, identify examples of better practice (as well as areas for improvement), and strengthen the transparency and accountability of business, the Resource Centre is surveying 85 construction contractors across Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar and the UAE on the steps they are taking to protect these workers from labour violations and others human rights abuse.

Companies that take the lead in publicly committing to and upholding migrant workers’ rights will stand in good stead as governments introduce mandatory human rights reporting, clients begin to assign projects to companies based on their human rights procedures, and investors seek to protect their investments from scandal. Those that fail to act don't just risk being left behind, but could face reputational, financial and legal consequences.

Fifty of the companies being surveyed have operations in Qatar and/or the UAE, the full list of which is available here alongside the survey questions. This is the second time we are surveying construction companies in these countries, with the last round of outreach revealing a severe lack of transparency and commitment from the sector with regards to action on migrant workers’ rights.

The remaining companies are working in Lebanon and Jordan, where the sector is reliant on migrant and irregular workers, and increasingly, Syrian refugees. In this first round of surveys we are seeking to understand how construction companies on projects, particularly those ultimately financed by international development institutions and donors, are protecting these vulnerable groups from common risks in the industry, which we highlight in our briefing for businesses on “Understanding Risks to Construction Workers in the Middle East”.

The results of these surveys will enable stakeholders to gauge progress in the sector in the last two years and serve as an baseline at the advent of global standards for the industry.