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Respecting the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East

by Geert Aelbrecht, Chief People Officer at BESIX Group

The start of the national football teams’ qualifying matches for the World Cup in Qatar has put the theme of respect for migrant workers’ rights back in the spotlight.

BESIX Group, the largest Belgian construction company, and Six Construct, its subsidiary in the Middle East, have been active in the region for more than 55 years, and have worked on the construction of sports facilities for the event as well. Perhaps you have some questions about our practices; so let me present you with a few aspects that we believe are important.

Like all construction companies active in the Middle East, the majority of workers on our sites are migrant workers. These are people mainly from India and South East Asia who have come to the Middle East temporarily to work. Our group has long made respecting their rights and quality of life, both at work and in our accommodations, a top priority.

Let’s start with what others say about us

In recent years, several prominent officials from leading international organisations and institutions have publicly cited BESIX Group as a reference in respecting and promoting the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East. From the director of Amnesty International in Belgium to the president of the International Labour Organisation and the president of the BWI, a leading international federation of 351 trade unions, all concur to stress that while respect for migrant workers in the Middle East varies greatly from one company to another, BESIX was among the best examples of a company with good policies, that “set the bar high” by implementing standards on construction sites similar to those applied in Europe, and that makes it a “point of honour” not to work with external companies that do not respect migrant workers’ rights.

What we do

These public statements by leading officials correctly mirror the actual policies and practices of BESIX Group in the Middle East. Here are some examples:

  • Our migrant workers working for us and our subsidiaries are always paid on time and their salaries correspond to national and international standards. In addition to salaries, we cover their full health insurance and we provide them with quality living facilities, with all necessary religious and cultural accommodations, including food;
  • We do not withhold passports or personal documents against the workers’ will;
  • We do not work with recruitment agencies that charge migrant workers retroactive payments or recruitment fees;
  • Our contractors themselves must provide documentation to show that they meet high standards in areas such as living conditions and recruitment processes;
  • We have transparent mechanisms in place for the appointment of worker representatives;
  • Migrant workers have access to all relevant information in a language they know;
  • We have one of the best safety records on construction sites in the region;
  • Working hours are adapted to the seasons, especially in the warmer months (no work shift between 1:00am and 04:00pm), and facilities and infrastructure are in place to maintain quality working conditions.

Independent monitoring

All companies in the world can claim that they guarantee conditions that respect international standards. BESIX Group wanted to go one step further, by voluntarily submitting to independent audits and control missions of its human rights practices. In the Middle East, we have pioneered this approach, with the aim of both demonstrating the quality of our internal policies and being challenged on these questions to continue to improve and excel. This is one of the reasons why we signed in 2017 an international framework agreement with the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI). Next to promoting the well-being of our workers, wherever they are in the world, the agreement includes the establishment of an independent monitoring mechanism for our practices in this area. In this context, BWI has free access to construction sites and accommodation provided to migrant workers: in recent years, the organisation has carried out various audit missions of our activities, in particular in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. We always take their reports and suggestions with the utmost attention, and are happy to make the necessary improvements. Their reports are also made publicly available.

What about the World Cup in Qatar?

BESIX Group can state that the construction of sports facilities for the Football World Cup has generally had a positive impact on workers’ rights in the region. This international event has highlighted existing issues in this area, in particular unacceptable practices on the part of certain companies. It would also be particularly unfair not to mention the real and positive reforms undertaken by several Gulf States, including Qatar, of their social legislation.

Concretely, our achievements in Qatar include the construction of sports infrastructures for the Football World Cup. Between 2014 and 2019, Six Construct renovated an existing stadium (Khalifa) and built a new one (Al Janoub). Throughout their construction, we actively collaborated with the Qatari authorities and, from 2017, with BWI to demonstrate the quality of life and working life of our migrant workers.

Unfortunately, our two construction sites have suffered a total of three fatal accidents on a 5-year period. These three accidents involved two migrant workers and one non-migrant worker, two of whom were working for subcontractors. However, our company has never denied or evaded responsibility. These accidents occurred on construction sites and were investigated by the competent authorities and by our departments.

In conclusion, I am proud to say that we at BESIX strive for excellence and will continue to do so on the front of human rights for our workers, independent of their origins. We call on all construction companies to do the same.

As a company we strive for excellence. Learning from our experiences and mistakes, daily focused to create a better life for our colleagues, partners and clients, regardless race, gender, orientation, religion and all other diversity criteria.

As reader you are always free to contact me in case of any question.

Geert Aelbrecht Chief People Officer BESIX Group

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