World Cup: French company charged with forced labor in Qatar

PARIS (AP) — A subsidiary of French construction company Vinci was handed preliminary charges Wednesday of forced labor and other alleged violations of the rights of migrant workers hired to build infrastructure in Qatar around the World Cup.

The company denies the charges and is appealing them, and accused magistrates of rushing through the decision ahead of the tournament opening Nov. 20.

But a human rights group behind the initial legal complaint against Vinci seven years ago hailed Wednesday’s move as a breakthrough, after protracted efforts to hold the company accountable for the alleged abuses.

Leading up to the World Cup, Qatar has faced scrutiny for its labor laws and treatment of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other South Asian countries.

Vinci subsidiary Vinci Construction Grands Projets was given preliminary charges of holding multiple people in servitude through forced labor; submitting workers to conditions and lodging incompatible with human dignity; and obtaining services from people who were vulnerable or in a situation of dependence, according to a judicial official and French advocacy group Sherpa.

Sherpa filed the original complaint in 2015, along with several former workers.

Sherpa said it collected testimonies about the working conditions at some construction sites operated by Vinci’s subsidiary, which included working in temperatures over 45 C (113 F) with insufficient water, the withholding of passports, and lack of access to showers in accommodations.

The charges are “a strong signal for these economic players who profit from modern slavery,” Sherpa president Sandra Cossart told The Associated Press. “We hope that it will make things move.”

Vinci said earlier this week that its representatives were being summoned by investigating magistrates to face potential charges in the case.

Reacting to the charges Wednesday, the Vinci subsidiary's lawyer Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi said on France-Info radio that the company will seek to have the decision annulled.

He denounced what he called “the insufficient time frame given to lawyers to lay out useful responses, and the hasty choice of the date (for the summons), just a few days before the opening of the football World Cup.”

Vinci said Monday that none of the projects awarded to its Qatari unit QDVC had any connection to the World Cup, and that it is committed to improving “the living and working conditions of all workers at its construction sites, all around the world.”

The construction group has worked on some of the infrastructure that will be used during the World Cup, including the Doha metro connecting the airport with the historic city center, and the Lusail light-rail transit system transportation network.

The judicial official said that the preliminary charges relate to work carried out in connection with the World Cup. The official was not authorized to be publicly named discussing an ongoing investigation.

Preliminary charges under French law mean there is reason to suspect a crime has been committed but allow magistrates more time for investigation before deciding whether to send the case to trial.

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Angela Charlton, The Associated Press