BERLIN — The Qatari government said Tuesday it has implemented widespread measures to protect immigrant workers from the coronavirus, after a German documentary highlighted that ongoing construction of World Cup infrastructure raised the risk of infections.
The government said in a statement to The Associated Press that it is providing free healthcare and a salary-guarantee for those workers affected by the virus, and is bringing a daily shipment of food and protective equipment into the industrial area where immigrant laborers reside.
The response came after the documentary reported on severe food shortages for the workers and an increased risk of infection due to cramped conditions inside a quarantined part of the Industrial Area district outside Doha.
Retail shops and bank branches in shopping malls are closed as Qatar bids to contain the virus. The Persian Gulf country has reported over 1,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with some 130 recoveries and four deaths.
But work on construction sites continues as Qatar gets ready to host the World Cup in 2022. Migrant workers are driving the effort.
Qatar, like other Gulf Arab nations, relies on foreign laborers to build its mega projects and highways. They take the jobs to earn incomes they never could back home, though abuse and maltreatment have been reported for years. Many live in cramped, dormitory-style housing.
The Qatari government told the AP on Tuesday that “1,000 trucks loaded with goods enter the Industrial Area daily” and that food, water, masks, gloves and hand sanitizers are being delivered to workers.
An outbreak of COVID-19 infections led the state to close off the zone between Street No. 1 and Street No. 32 of the Industrial Area in a bid to contain the virus last month. Affected workers told German broadcaster ARD that they are effectively imprisoned in the lockdown area with little to eat and little protection against the virus. Social distancing is not possible for the workers.
Footage shot with mobile phones showed empty supermarket shelves and workers rushing to receive supplies from a government delivery.
The broadcaster said it spoke to workers from Nepal, Bangladesh and countries in Africa. They all asked to remain anonymous because of fears of retribution for speaking out about their conditions. Some expressed fears they would not receive their salaries.
The Qatari government told AP it had set up dedicated health centers to treat patents with COVID-19 in the Industrial Area, as well as three checkpoints for testing and screening. Treatment would be free and “those who do not have a valid work visa will also be treated free of charge without fear of detention or financial penalties.”
It said it would “guarantee that all residents who are in quarantine or undergoing treatment will receive full salaries on schedule.”
It also said it was limiting the number of people in accommodation rooms to four, and introducing social distancing measures at work, “such as staggering entry and exit of workers to and from their workplace, limiting all bus capacity to a maximum of 50 percent and ensuring masks and hand sanitizers are available at worksites.”
Last week, a number of human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Fair/Square, Human Rights Watch and Migrant-Rights.org urged Qatar Prime Minister Khalid bin Khalifa Al Thani to protect migrant workers during the pandemic.
“Qatar has made promising commitments to support migrant workers during this unprecedented crisis, including earmarking funds to cover quarantined migrant workers’ wages, and setting up a hotline for grievances,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now, more than ever, such promises need to be implemented.”