Qatar construction giant Vinci sued over 'modern slavery'

PARIS -- Accusing it of practicing "modern slavery," a French campaign group has filed a legal complaint against construction giant Vinci for grave mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar, the host country of the 2022 World Cup.

Vinci responded that it "totally refutes" the charges and will file a counter-suit against the group, Sherpa, for libel. Vinci's Qatar subsidiary QDVC has contracts worth €2.2 billion in the Gulf state.

Sherpa's complaint, if acted upon by French prosecutors, could increase pressure on Qatar and companies engaged there to improve conditions for guest workers. The rich Gulf state is relying on their muscle for massive public works that are transforming the capital, Doha, for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

The complaint, lodged Monday, targets Vinci's construction wing and French managers of QDVC. Sherpa accused them of driving workers into forced labor and bondage. It is now for French prosecutors to decide whether the allegations warrant judicial investigation. Or, as with some previous Sherpa complaints against other companies, they could shelve the claim as unfounded.

Vinci responded with a statement denying the charges and inviting Sherpa and journalists to visit its construction sites and newly opened accommodations for workers in Qatar.

Vinci is involved in numerous public works in Qatar, including a new Doha subway, an orbital highway and transport links that World Cup fans will likely use to travel to the stadium expected to hold the opening match and final in 2022. About 9,000 laborers are employed on projects in which QDVC is involved. Of those, 2,000 are directly employed by QDVC.

Sherpa said several months of investigations unearthed proof of "inhumane and dangerous" conditions on QDVC sites. It said workers' passports are confiscated and they are threatened to stop them from seeking better conditions and housing. Sandra Cossart, a Sherpa lawyer, said laborers log 66 hours of work per week, more than allowed by Qatari law, "for really ridiculous payments."

"It is modern slavery," Cossart said in a phone interview.

Vinci responded that QDVC employees can access their passports when they want and that working hours are "strictly observed." At the end of contract, 70 percent of QDVC workers sign up for a further two years, Vinci said.

Should Sherpa's allegations lead to a successful prosecution, "that would be a highly significant event and may be the catalyst that will spur the construction sector to get its act together collectively, and to assist in the push for the labor reforms that they need in order to operate ethically in Qatar and Dubai and other highly lucrative construction sectors in the Gulf," said Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The group is not involved in Sherpa's complaint but has documented labor abuses in Qatar and campaigned for reforms.

"Under European law, European firms can be sued for serious labor violations in their supply chain abroad," McGeehan said by email. "Where Qatar and the other Gulf states are concerned, it's probably more a question of when a European construction firm gets sued rather than if."