As world locks down, Qatari construction presses ahead

A picture taken on December 20, 2019 shows a construction worker at Qatar's Lusail Stadium, around 20 kilometres north of the capital Doha. (File/AFP)
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Updated 28 March 2020

As world locks down, Qatari construction presses ahead

  • Workers complain of lack of safety precautions amid COVID-19 outbreak

LONDON: The outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) across much of the world has forced many governments to act, with most ordering restrictions on daily life and working conditions, and some even ordering complete shutdowns in a bid to contain the pandemic.

Even where governments have left the choice up to employers, many have taken the decision to let employees work from home where possible to slow the spread, with others shutting down work for the foreseeable future to protect lives.
That has not been the case in Qatar, though, where many migrant laborers are still working on crowded, dangerous construction sites as the country gears up to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Qatar’s government has banned “all forms of gatherings … including but not limited to the Corniche, public parks, beaches and social gatherings.”
But despite also putting in place near-total bans on the operating of gyms, malls and banks, construction sites were notably not part of the ban.
Qatar currently has the third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Middle East, at 500.
But as Doha struggles to respond to COVID-19, and with the World Cup inching closer, work on stadiums and other infrastructure projects has continued apace, despite the majority of its cases being migrants.
Workers at Qatari construction sites reportedly receive very little in the way of health checks, and commute to work on packed buses from the camps in which they live, where proximity to others, often with 10 people to a dormitory, is a near constant.  
In a report by The Guardian, laborers said they felt they had no choice but to continue going to work, facing pressure both from the companies that employ them and the need to support their families overseas.

It is hard for employees in any context to refuse to go to work, but in systems like Qatar, where employers have extreme levels of control over workers, it would be particularly risky.

James Lynch, Expert on migrant workers

“I worry a lot about getting the virus, but I need the money,” said a Kenyan laborer, adding that he was not provided with protection beyond gloves and a mask on his 14-hour shifts.
A Nepalese worker told The Guardian: “I use a face mask, which I bought myself. Those who don’t have a mask cover their mouth with a piece of cloth.”
Migrant workers in Qatar face a difficult choice, especially with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many pay large fees to secure sponsorship allowing them to travel, are underpaid for their labor, and are only allowed to leave or change their jobs with the permission of their employers — a practice many have likened to slavery and which, despite promises by Doha to end it, remains widespread.
James Lynch, a director at Fair/Square Research and Projects, and an expert on migrant workers in Qatar, told The Guardian: “It is hard for employees in any context to refuse to go to work, but in systems like Qatar, where employers have extreme levels of control over workers, it would be particularly risky.”
He added: “New migration to Qatar has been halted as a result of the pandemic, so the impact of losing your job is now even worse than it would be anyway.”
Many have been outraged at the government’s response, with social media posts illustrating the extent of ill-feeling among members of Qatar’s migrant worker community.
“No one cares about our safety,” said one. “Do they think we don’t want to live? Do you think we don’t want to see our families?”
Another wrote: “We are not robots. We are not immune to the virus.”

Russian mediation reopens major highway in NE Syria

Updated 43 min 30 sec ago

Russian mediation reopens major highway in NE Syria

  • Syria records 20 new cases of coronavirus in largest single-day increase

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Traffic returned to a major highway in northeastern Syria for the first time in seven months on Monday, following Russian mediation to reopen parts of the road captured last year by Turkey-backed opposition fighters.

Syrian Kurdish media and a Syrian Kurdish official said several vehicles accompanied by Russian troops began driving in the morning between the northern towns of Ein Issa and Tal Tamr. 

The two towns are controlled by regime forces and Syrian Kurdish fighters while the area between them is mostly held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters.

Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters captured parts of the highway known as M4 in October, when Ankara invaded northeastern Syria to drive away Syrian Kurdish fighters. The M4 links Syria’s coastal region all the way east to the Iraqi border.

Four convoys will drive on the M4 every day with two leaving from Tal Tamr and two from Ein Issa, according to the Kurdish ANHA news agency. The report said a convoy will leave from each town at 8 a.m., and another set of convoys will do the same, three hours later.

The ANHA agency added that the opening of the highway will shorten the trip between the two towns as people previously had to take roundabout, side roads.

“This is the first time the road has been opened” since October, said Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Russia, a main power broker with Turkey in Syria, mediated the deal to reopen the highway, he said. Russia and Turkey back rival groups in Syria’s nine-year conflict.

Coronavirus cases

Syria reported 20 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Monday, the largest single-day increase to date.

The war-torn country has recorded 106 infections and four deaths so far, and new cases have increased in recent days with the return of Syrians from abroad.

Syria has kept an overnight curfew in place but has begun to open some of its economy after a lockdown. Doctors and relief groups worry that medical infrastructure ravaged by years of conflict would make a more serious outbreak deadly and difficult to fend off.