PARIS (Reuters) - French construction giant Vinci vigorously denied allegations it had violated the rights of migrant workers helping to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and said it would sue the human rights group Sherpa over its claims.
Paris-based Sherpa said it had asked the public prosecutor of Nanterre, a suburb of Paris, to open an investigation after it filed a complaint with the Nanterre court against Vinci's Construction Grand Projets division and the managers of its 49 percent-owned Qatari unit QDVC for "forced labor" and "keeping people in servitude".
Reuters was unable to independently verify Sherpa's accusations.
Vinci, which employs 3,500 people in Qatar and counts the wealthy Arab state as its second-largest shareholder, said it would sue Sherpa for libel and that the claims "severely" hurt its image.
The rest of QDVC belongs to Qatari Diar, an arm of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), which holds 5.3 percent of Vinci's shares. QIA declined to comment.
Sherpa Managing Director Laetitia Liebert told Reuters by phone that one of the financial crime-focused organization's lawyers traveled to Qatar in November and over a week secured the "signed" testimonies of between 10 and 15 witnesses about their work conditions.
The testimonies claim that these migrants worked an average of 66 hours per week, lived as many as eight to a room, and operated in "difficult even dangerous" conditions and in "stifling heat".
"There were cases where passports were confiscated, preventing the migrants from changing employer or returning home," she said.
Sherpa declined to supply the evidence to Reuters, saying they wanted to protect witnesses.
"Vinci absolutely denies the claims made by Sherpa. The group respects local labor laws and fundamental rights in Qatar as well as in all the countries where it operates," a Vinci spokesman said by telephone.
"In Qatar, each QDVC employee has free access to his passport while work and rest times are strictly respected," the spokesman said.
Accusations of forced labor in Qatar come up frequently.
Sherpa wants France to pass legislation forcing big international groups to be "vigilant" about human rights violations made by their units or suppliers operating abroad, Liebert said.
Vinci noted that it belonged to the United Nations Global Compact under which companies agree to the organization's 10 principles regarding human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption.
Pierre Gattaz, the head of the French MEDEF employers association, said any effort along the lines proposed by Sherpa should be an international one.
"All countries must fight so that the situation improves everywhere in the world," Gattaz told the Europe 1 radio.
According to the second annual Global Slavery Index released last year by Walk Free Foundation, an Australian-based human rights group, 29,400 people, or 1.4 percent of Qatar's population, are estimated to be working as slaves, in forced labor or domestic servitude.
Qatar's authorities have denied these claims and dismissed them as a campaign against the first Gulf nation to host a Soccer World Cup. Qatar has also said none of the workers employed for World Cup projects have been exploited.
Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, additional reporting by Amena Bakr in DOHA, editing by Andrew Callus, Louise Heavens and Susan Thomas