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‘We have fallen into a trap’: Qatar’s World Cup dream is a nightmare for hotel staff | Workers’ rights

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When Fifa executives step on to the asphalt in Doha next November for the start of the 2022 World Cup finals, their next stop is likely to be the check-in at one of Qatar’s glittering array of opulent hotels, built to provide the most luxurious possible backdrop to the biggest sporting event on earth.

Now, with a year to go before the first match, fans who want to emulate the lifestyle of the sporting elite can head to Fifa’s hospitality website to plan their stay in the host nation. There they can scroll through a catalogue of exclusive, Fifa-endorsed accommodation, from boutique hotels to five-star resorts.

Yet behind the scenes of some of those hotels, while guests lounge around the pool or sip cocktails at the bar, migrant hotel workers claim they are struggling to survive on wages of £1 an hour.

The Guardian stayed at or visited seven of the hotels listed on Fifa’s hospitality website and in interviews and conversations with more than 40 workers – employed directly and through sub-contractorsuncovered a number of allegations of serious labour rights violations and low wages. The hotels have not been named to protect the identity of the workers who spoke to the Guardian.

Many workers alleged they worked extremely long hours, with some saying they had not had a day off for months. While they spent their days surrounded by the most luxurious of settings, some workers said they were housed in overcrowded rooms in stifling labour camps. A few workers claimed their passports had been confiscated. Many said their employer would not let them change jobs.

While rooms in the hotels listed on Fifa’s hospitality site are charged at up to £820 a night when bought as part of a package, almost every worker the Guardian spoke to employed in housekeeping, security, valet service, cleaning or gardening said they earned less than £1.25 an hour. Many were working for less than £1 an hour.

Workers made multiple allegations of breaches of Qatar’s labour law, which suggest shortcomings in Qatar’s labour reforms. These promised an end to abusive working conditions and the kafala sponsorship system that meant workers could not change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s consent.

The workers’ allegations also imply that Fifa has failed to effectively carry out basic checks on the hotels investigated by the Guardian that it had signed up to its catalogue, in breach of its own human rights policy, which requires it to prevent labour abuses linked to its operations.

While most workers the Guardian spoke to received salaries in line with the new minimum wage, which came into force in March 2021, that wage still equates to only £1 an hour plus a small allowance for food and board.

The Guardian has also seen payslips from one worker employed directly by a hotel in Fifa’s catalogue, which show that when the minimum wage was introduced his basic wage of 750 rials (£150) rose to 1,000 rials (£200) a month, but allowances for food or transport, for example, were cut by the same amount, meaning his salary stayed the same.

“Sometimes I ask myself why I came here,” he said. “The World Cup is a big thing and everyone enjoys it, but the way they treat us … we are all tired of it.”

As darkness fell on one of the properties in Fifa’s brochure, guests retired indoors, leaving David*, a migrant worker from Africa, labouring near the swimming pool.

A night in a standard room in the hotel costs more than David earns in a month. He is desperate to change jobs but despite recent government legislation allowing this, he sayssaid he is trapped. “My friends have tried to change jobs but our company refuses to let them go,” he said. “We have to accept it. Our boss does whatever he wants.”

The hotel boasts sumptuous suites and a marble-lined lobby, but his own lodgings are starkly different: a small room shared with five others in a run-down compound on the edge of Doha.

Ranjit, a security guard, stood on duty nearby, as he had done for the previous 11 hours. Ranjit’s salary works out at about 80p an hour. Yet for five months he kept nothing; everything went towards paying off the illegal £1,300 fee he was forced to hand a recruitment agent back home to secure the job. “It’s a scam,” he said. “Here they suck your blood.”

Some workers across the seven hotels said they were happy with their jobs and the staff accommodation provided by their hotels. Yet the majority said they felt trapped between the demands of their employers and the need to earn money for their families back in their own countries.

At one hotel, a worker alleged that the management would only give bonuses to staff who handed over their passports. It is illegal for employers to keep workers’ passports in Qatar.

“We have fallen into a trap and can’t get out,” said another worker at the hotel.

With 1.2 million fans expected during the World Cup, the hospitality sector can look forward to a lucrative tournament.

A few hotels demonstrated good practice by recruiting their staff directly through online adverts, rather than through labour agents who often extract extortionate and illegal fees from recruits, but even in these properties the Guardian spoke to staff who were paid very low wages.

A glittering array of new buildings have been built to accommodate the World Cup tournament.
A glittering array of new buildings have been built to accommodate the World Cup tournament. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

The worst allegations of abuse were by workers employed through sub-contractors, in particular hotel security guards and gardeners.

At another hotel on Fifa’s website a Kenyan security guard was about to begin his 12-hour shift, which he said stretched beyond 15 hours when he added travel time to and from his labour camp.

If he works all month without a break he earns 2,000 rials (£400); far less than he was promised when he signed up for the job in Kenya. If he took a day off, his employer would cut his wages by 50 rials (£10). Not that he often had that option. “During the summer we had to work for three months without a day off,” he said.

His passport has been confiscated by his company. “Maybe they think if you have your passport you can run away to another company,” he said. “We have no other option, so we take what is on the table.”

The Guardian’s findings have shone a spotlight directly on world football’s governing body, which has been criticised by Amnesty International for taking a “hands-off” approach to workers’ rights in the host nation. A spokesperson for Fifa said it “takes any claim concerning the rights of workers contributing to the hosting of Fifa events very seriously”.

The spokesperson said a dedicated team was implementing an audit and compliance system for companies involved in the delivery of the World Cup, including hotels, to ensure workers’ rights were respected. “While there is a need for continued improvement, we have already seen important progress by many hotels in Qatar in recent months,” the spokesperson added.

Isobel Archer, a specialist in labour rights in the Gulf at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), a charity headquartered in London, said hotels must recognise their responsibilities to all workers, including those employed through sub-contractors.

“If hotel brands put even half the effort into scrutinising their suppliers’ labour practices as they do the height of their reception desks or the density of guest room pillows, we’d see transformational change for hotel workers,” she said.

A report by the BHRRC this year also found evidence of widespread exploitation of hotel workers in Qatar which, it said, should be a “red flag” for football teams, fans and corporate sponsors.

A Qatari official said the government “takes any violation of its labour laws very seriously, including those in the hospitality sector”. The official said Qatar had a zero-tolerance approach towards violating companies, issuing harsh penalties that included fines and prison sentences.

“Awareness-raising initiatives have been launched to provide workers with information on how to raise complaints against their employer, and new mechanisms have been introduced to facilitate better access to justice,” the official added.

*Names have been changed or omitted to protect workers’ identities.

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Biden threatens US blacklisting of Putin

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US president Joe Biden said Tuesday “Yes, I would see that” when asked by reporters if the US would blacklist Russian president Valdimir Putin if he invaded Ukraine. It would be the “largest invasion since World War Two” and would “change the world”, Biden said. The UK and US were also “in discussions” on disconnecting Russia from the Swift international payments system, British prime minister Boris Johnson also said Tuesday.

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Planned change to Kenya’s forest act threatens vital habitats, say activists | Global development

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Environmentalists are deeply concerned by the Kenyan government’s move to allow boundary changes to protected forests, watering down the powers of conservation authorities.

The forest conservation and management (amendment) bill 2021 seeks to delete clause 34(2) from the 2016 act, which makes it mandatory for authorities to veto anyone trying to alter forest boundaries. The same clause protects forests from actions that put rare, threatened or endangered species at risk.

Tabled by the National Assembly’s procedure committee, the amendment would weaken the role of Kenya Forest Service, mandated to protect all public forests, allowing politicians to decide who can change forest boundaries.

In an election year, many have read the proposal, due to be debated at the end of the month, as politically motivated.

The committee’s memorandum to MPs said current laws “unnecessarily limit the rights of any Kenyan to petition parliament” as provided for in the constitution.

An indigenous tree stands in habitat destroyed by charcoal makers
An indigenous tree, believed by local people to be ancient, stands in an area destroyed by charcoal makers in Nyakweri forest, Narok county, Kenya. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

But conservationists have said this would be a serious setback for the country, which was seeking to increase forest cover to 10% of land by 2022, up from 7.4%. Forest authorities said the move puts endangered species at risk, as well as clearing the way for unscrupulous individuals to encroach into forests that, according to a 2014 government paper, have been shrinking at a rate of 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) annually.

“I am astounded any right-thinking person would consider submitting or supporting such an amendment,” said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive at WildlifeDirect, a conservation NGO. “It will open the door to forest destruction after decades of hard work by agencies, communities and NGOs to increase forest cover, as committed to in our constitution. One can only read mischief in such a motion, with elections around the corner.”

A mural of Prof Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace prize winner by Pius Kiio Kitheka also known as Waji Dice.
A mural of Nobel Peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who campaigned to protect Kenya’s forests. Photograph: Boniface Muthoni/SOPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Kahumbu added: “At risk are indigenous forests and the biodiversity therein, the integrity of our water towers, generation of hydropower and productivity of our farms. The environmental experts of Kenya and the conservation community call on all citizens of Kenya to reach out to their MPs to wholeheartedly and aggressively reject this heinous bill.”

She said the amendment would destroy the legacy of Wangari Maathai, the late environmentalist and Nobel Peace prize winner, who was once attacked and seriously wounded as she led a tree-planting exercise in Nairobi’s Karura Forest.

In a tweet, Christian Lambrechts, executive director at Rhino Ark said: “Considering what Kenya has lost in the past, any change that weakens, rather than strengthens the mechanisms to protect our forests, is ill-advised.”

Rhino Ark has been spearheading an initiative to put up electric fences around Kenya’s public forests to hamper poachers and illegal incursions.

Dickson Kaelo, head of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, said the move by parliament is intended to “give legitimacy” to those who would destroy Kenya’s biodiversity.

“This is a well-calculated move to open the doors for forest excisions and allocation to private persons for development, and may even be a means to normalise current excisions. It is a threat to our forests coming at a time when we have a low forest coverage and a high risk of climate crisis-induced vulnerabilities. We call upon parliament to reject the amendment,” said Kaelo.

Protecting forests from developers has been a daunting task in Kenya.

Last July, Joannah Stutchbury, a prominent environmental activist, was killed near her home in Nairobi after her protracted opposition to attempts by powerful businessmen to build on Kiambu forest near the capital, Nairobi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has yet to fulfil a promise to catch her killers.



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EU court set to rule on Hungary, Poland rule-of-law challenge

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The European Court of Justice will rule on 16 February on the legality of the new mechanism linking EU funds to respect for the rule of law, which was challenged by Poland and Hungary last year. The tool has been threatened against Budapest and Warsaw where governments oversaw a decline in EU democratic standards. The court’s adviser ruled last month that their challenges should be rejected.

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