Michael Pavitt

With a vast number of delegates in Doha for the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly this week, the Qatari authorities did not miss a trick in inviting journalists to attend a tour of "Labour City".

Concerns have been reported worldwide in recent years regarding the "slave labour" conditions in which workers, mainly constructing venues for the FIFA World Cup, have been accommodated in. Having controversially won the rights to stage the tournament in 2022, Qatar also earned the scrutiny which came with it and has certainly been hit by criticism.

In December 2015, Amnesty International accused Qatar 2022 and FIFA of doing too little to address "rampant migrant labour abuse", following the publication of high death toll figures among migrant workers.

Another damning report by Amnesty, released in March, stated that workers were being forced to live in squalid and cramped accommodation, had often been deceived as to the pay or type of work on offer, and had not received their wages for several months.

Qatar has pledged to reform the restrictive kafala system of sponsorship, in which employers effectively own labourers and can prevent them from leaving the country. Their promise has not stemmed much of the criticism, particularly when World Cup organisers admitted a "work-related fatality" on a construction site for the first time last month.

A media tour of Labour City was therefore seen as an ideal opportunity to convince the international press that the issues are being taken seriously in Qatar.

Labour City is already part of Qatar's "Vision 2030", a development plan focused on sustainable growth through economic, social, human and environmental development.

Workers live in rooms of between three to four people in Labour City ©ITG
Workers live in rooms of between three to four people in Labour City ©ITG

The completed project consists of two separate zones, with one focused on accommodation of the workers and their daily needs. Built with the capacity to house 700,000 workers the complex is vast, with block after block of identical white buildings split only by roads. Currently 60,000 migrants are claimed to live in Labour City, which is the first of six projects aimed at providing accommodation for the scores of workers in Qatar, who mostly come from Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

With a believed cost of around $800 million (£649 million/€755 million) to construct, the city is taken care of by private contractor NAAAS, with claims there is no cost to workers living at the site.

Upon visiting the accommodation, it becomes apparent that this is still fundamentally basic accommodation. Particularly when you take into context the vast wealth of the Gulf state and the backdrop of numerous, extravagant, skyscrapers in the capital Doha, with construction sites appearing throughout the city. 

Rooms are shared between three to four people, with a basic bed and cupboard for everyone. Therefore, it is easy to imagine that privacy is hard to come by. With space still fairly limited and the temperature outside still more than 30 degrees, despite being in one of the cooler months of the year, air conditioning appeared essential and is thankfully included.

Each block contains its own cafeteria, which appears like your standard set-up at a school or workplace. Food is provided by the contractors, with a regularly changing menu. A committee has reportedly been set up to garner feedback from those living at the complex.

Laundry facilities, a security system featuring 48 cameras to ensure the welfare of the workers, two mosques and a room including table football and table tennis is also included. There is also an exercise room, although it is hard to imagine workers racing to lift weights and use cardio machines after their shifts in heat and humidity - which are claimed to be eight hours long with the option of two hours overtime.

Labour City is designed to house around 70,000 migrant workers ©ITG
Labour City is designed to house around 70,000 migrant workers ©ITG

A state-of-the-art medical centre is located in Labour City, with the eight-month-old building designed to be for short stays, allowing its 40 or so staff to combat minor ailments, such as dehydration. 

One of the most interesting aspects was when the doctor in charge of the clinic stated that individual licenses are required for separate specialist parts of the centre, with several remaining outstanding. More serious problems were claimed to be dealt with in a hospital, located 2.8 kilometres away, with three ambulances on standby.

The second zone, separated by a small road from the accommodation, is dedicated to entertainment. This includes four cinemas, an amphitheatre, shops and restaurants. These are open to the whole public, not just the workers. 

There is also a 16,000-capacity cricket stadium, which recently hosted an international match between Qatar and Pakistan. Although it is asserted that workers can use the venue to play their own tournaments and watch cricket, it is a claim which would need to be seen to be believed.

Being a pre-planned tour, it is easy to be cynical about the entire experience. You wonder whether any migrants actually live in the accommodation at all, a concern swiftly disproved when a horde of workers walked into our path. However, it would be wrong to declare after a two hour snapshot of the complex that everything is fine.

The Labour City appears to be a good start to improving conditions for workers. But that is all it is, a start. It appears strange to me that with such wealth in the country, four people are living in the same room. Then you consider that this is the first such project put in place, with 60,000 people "benefiting" to date.

An 18,000 capacity cricket stadium is claimed to be open to workers to use and watch matches ©ITG
An 18,000 capacity cricket stadium is claimed to be open to workers to use and watch matches ©ITG

What seems like a relatively large number appears a lot smaller when you consider that around 1.6 million migrant workers are believed to reside in Qatar. 

Even when the remaining six facilities are constructed, should they hold 70,000 people each, it would still be some way short of the scale required to adequately house the number of workers the country is purported to have. 

This is particularly concerning when the number of workers is expected to surge in 2017, when construction of stadiums is due to step up a notch. Around 70,000 workers were claimed to be working on projects associated with the 2022 World Cup, with 10,000 constructing stadiums.

Then you take into account the widely criticised conditions migrants are reported to work under at the stadiums, with it claimed as many as 1,200 may have died since 2010.

The frustration remains as to why one of the biggest events on the calendar was awarded in the first place to a nation with such issues to address, even before considering the circumstances in which the tournament was awarded and the sporting challenges associated with playing in Qatar.

Nonetheless, the Labour City project does appear to be a step in the right direction. If the scrutiny and demand to improve the conditions of workers continues to force Qatari authorities to act, then perhaps the spotlight of the World Cup could help leave a genuine human legacy. We can hope.