French construction firm Vinci said on Monday it expected to be charged this week by a magistrate investigating allegedly abusive work practices on its building sites in Qatar.
The group said its subsidiary Vinci Constructions Grands Projets had been summoned on Wednesday by a French magistrate investigating its infrastructure projects in Qatar "with a view to it being charged".
Under French law, being charged implies the magistrate believes there is compelling evidence against the company, but the decision can be appealed and does not automatically mean the case will go to trial.
The Paris-based group said it regretted the development and denies the charges of using forced labour and taking part in human trafficking.
Two French NGOs -- Sherpa and the Committee Against Modern Slavery -- and seven former employees from India and Nepal who worked on Vinci building sites have filed a series of legal complaints against the company dating back to 2015.
They allege that employees working on sites linked to the football World Cup laboured for 66 to 77 hours a week, had their passports confiscated and were forced to live in indecent accommodation.
In its statement on Monday, Vinci denied that the public transport sites in question were linked to the World Cup, saying they were awarded to the company before the football tournament was attributed to Qatar in 2010.
"We tried in vain to convince the magistrate that after seven and half years of investigation it was not a particularly good time to imagine laying charges a fortnight before the start of the World Cup," Vinci lawyer Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi told AFP, adding that he feared a "media storm".
Sherpa welcomed the possible deepening of the French investigation.
"If Vinci were to be charged, it would confirm that multinationals face increasing difficulties in hiding behind their supply chains, the idea that it's 'too complicated' to act," Sherpa said.
- Train lines -
Investigators from the anti-corruption NGO first visited Qatar in 2014 where they say they met labourers on Vinci projects whose passports had been confiscated and who were required to work in temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
The group alleged that some of the abuses took place among sub-contractors employed by third-party companies working for Vinci's Qatar subsidiary, Qatari Diar Vinci Construction.
Qatari Diar Vinci Construction employed 11,000 people at its height and was responsible for building the 37-station Lusail Light Rail Transit system around Doha, as well as the Red Line of the Qatari capital's underground metro system.
It also built the luxury Sheraton hotel in Doha.
The company unsuccessfully sued Sherpa for defamation after its first legal complaint in 2015.
Qatar has faced a barrage of criticism over migrant worker deaths and its labour law since being named World Cup host.
It has introduced significant changes since the start of the French legal investigation, including ending its so-called "Kafala" labour system.
This meant that a worker could not change jobs or leave the country without permission from their employer.
An audit of conditions for Vinci workers in Qatar was carried out by French trade union organisations in 2019 which concluded that the rights of labourers were being respected.