UN calls for greater heat protection for workers in Qatar

UN study praises measures taken by 2022 World Cup organising committee but other employers could improve protections.

    The UN study says heat mitigation steps taken by the World Cup organising committee were 'moderately to highly acceptable' [Maya Alleruzzo/EPA]
    The UN study says heat mitigation steps taken by the World Cup organising committee were 'moderately to highly acceptable' [Maya Alleruzzo/EPA]

    Improved safeguards and working hours are needed to further protect labourers in Qatar from the effects of heat and humidity, the United Nations said, as it published new research.

    Qatar has come under scrutiny for conditions faced by its hundreds of thousands of migrant workers as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

    The risks of Qatar's heat and humidity were again thrust into the spotlight at the recent World Athletics Championships in Doha when women's marathon runners collapsed because of the conditions, despite the race being staged at midnight.

    Humidity hovered around 73 percent and the temperature was 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) for much of last month's race.

    The study, commissioned by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Qatar's labour ministry, praised measures taken to reduce the effects of heat on 4,000 workers at one World Cup stadium project.

    It concluded that while the heat mitigation steps taken by the body responsible for delivering the football showcase were "moderately to highly acceptable", other employers in Qatar could improve protections.

    The head of the UN agency's Qatar project office, Houtan Homayounpour, said the project was working with the government to turn the study's recommendations into "improved legislation".

    "We have a scientific basis on which to propose adjustments to the prohibited working hours during summer, and it is clear that heat stress mitigation plans must recognise the right and enhance the ability of workers to self-pace," he said in a statement.

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    The law currently states that work on exposed sites must stop between 11:30am and 3:00pm during the summer months.

    Researchers from the University of Thessaly reviewed more than 5,500 hours of work as part of their research, the largest ever study of its kind and the first in the region.

    "The research examined different strategies for mitigating heat strain, focusing on hydration, work-rest ratios and clothing," the statement said.

    'Leading the region'

    Workers on the stadium project, run by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) organising the World Cup, mitigated conditions through frequent breaks as well as access to shade and water, according to the study.

    The researchers recommended companies in Qatar introduce heat stress alleviation plans and annual health check-ups as well as make adjustments to summertime working hours and empower employees to take responsibility for their welfare.

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    Projects run by the SC are acknowledged by human rights groups to generally offer their workers better protections and rights than schemes not under the supervision of the World Cup organisers.

    On Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on Qatar to "thoroughly and urgently investigate" worker deaths following the publication of research linking cardiovascular fatalities in the country to heatstroke.

    "The sudden and unexpected deaths of often young and healthy migrant workers in Qatar have gone uninvestigated by Qatari authorities, in apparent disregard for workers’ lives," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

    "Qatar cannot claim to uphold migrant workers' rights as long as it ignores urgent and repeated calls for lifesaving reforms that protect workers from the heat."

    The study, published by Cardiology Journal in July, probed the "relationship between deaths of more than 1,300 Nepali workers between 2009 and 2017 and heat exposure", according to HRW.

    Government spokesman, Sheikh Jassim bin Mansour Al-Thani, said in a statement: "Qatar has worked relentlessly for years ... to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all workers" and that "to suggest otherwise is false and misleading."

    "Our work with international organisations and partners has resulted in Qatar leading the region on workers' health and safety."

    He added that summer working hours had been "strictly implemented" and more than 300 work suspension cases were ordered in summer 2019.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies