French judge to probe Vinci unit over Qatar labour rights, group says

PARIS (Reuters) -A French judge has placed Vinci Construction Grands Projets, a unit of French construction group Vinci, under formal investigation over allegations it violated the rights of migrant workers in Qatar, human rights group Sherpa said on Wednesday.

Vinci said through its lawyer Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi that it would immediately appeal the judge's decision.

The company, which was not immediately available for comment, had said in a statement on Monday that it was "extremely regrettable" that despite proceedings having started seven years ago, its subsidiary should face charges just before the start of the soccer World Cup in Qatar.

Reuters sought comment from the court where the judge is based but was told it was not immediately able to comment.

"The judge is sending a strong signal, as it's the first time that a company is charged on this basis for one of its subsidiaries' activities abroad," Sandra Cossart, head of Paris-based Sherpa France, told Reuters by telephone.

The French judicial move follows an initial 2015 complaint by Sherpa, which was dismissed in January 2018.

Sherpa and the committee against modern slavery (CCEM), filed another complaint in March 2019 alongside 11 people who used to work for Qatari Diar Vinci Construction (QDVC), Vinci's Qatari subsidiary, in which the French company owns a 49% stake.

In the 2019 complaint, NGOs and former workers alleged the company made migrant workers work 11-hour shifts six days a week, longer than Qatari law allows, in dire conditions and at high risk for their personal health, for wages equivalent to 2% of Qatar's average salary.

Sherpa said the Vinci unit faces charges of "keeping people in servitude", "work and housing incompatible with human dignity", and "forced labour".

(Reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Alexander Smith)