In Qatar, World Cup workers toil on tourist visas
Haniya Javed/ Migration Panosa
The Gulf state has taken key steps to address labor issues ahead of the 2022 games, but workers say change has yet to improve their lives.
Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup has gone to great lengths to assure the international community labor conditions are improving for workers. But on the ground, foreign laborers told Asia Times they are working on tourist visas, unable to benefit from landmark labor reforms — or unaware of the changes.
Turning onto the road to Mesaieed, an industrial area south of the Qatari capital Doha, the road immediately changes, from a smooth, soundless drive, to the crunching of gravel. The eyes take a few seconds to adjust to the darkness, except for the flash of a face staring at the screen of his phone or the glow from a tip of a cigarette as a man or two stands outside box-like buildings. Greyish-blue work clothes hang in the open area of the entrances of these structures. A figure steps outside and flings a garment on the clothesline.
“I was told before coming to Doha that after the two year contract will be completed, I will be able to visit family in Bangladesh. And if I didn’t want to go, I would be given that money.” said Muhammad, a Bangladeshi worker who came to Qatar in 2013 and is housed in one of the residential buildings in the industrial area.
Muhammad says he is owed compensation for two return tickets but has received no money as yet. He says other workers in his industrial unit have faced the same issue.“I didn’t visit home this year. I received no money for my ticket. My passport is with my contractor. I can’t leave without his approval,” he said.Qatar, after coming under fire from human rights groups over workers’ rights, in May ratified two human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These treaties oblige Qatar to ensure workers have the right to freely choose their work, fair wages and safe working conditions. Those obligations apply to citizens as well as the migrant workers who make up at least three-fifths of Qatar’s 2.5 million population.The two covenants go hand in hand with a technical cooperation agreement Qatar made with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in October 2017. Doha agreed to set a minimum wage and abolish the kafala, a sponsorship system prevalent across the Gulf and Middle East that binds laborers to their employers and prevents them from leaving the country or changing jobs.Doha also vowed to promote the voices of its workforce by creating joint committees in which workers would have their own representation. Qatar’s Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs launched an electronic notification system through which workers can request an exit from the country. The worker can register on the website and use his or her employment information, such as occupation and company, and the ministry will have the final say in the decision. In instances of labor rights violations, the ministry would grant the approval to exit.The ILO, in recognition of these landmark steps, dropped a 2014 case against Qatar on alleged mistreatment of migrant workers on the site of one of the future World Cup stadiums.But on the ground, workers say they have yet to see the benefits.
Workers on tourist visas
Al Wakrah, south of the capital Doha, is the site of one of the eight stadiums under construction. Here, laborers say they are working illegally on tourist visas on a myriad of construction projects.
“I came to Qatar with a two-year contract on a visit (tourist) visa. Every six months, my visa is renewed by my company,” said Pradeep, who has been in Qatar for the past two years. While he is not seeking to leave the country, he is aware that he is excluded from workers’ benefits, and at constant risk of confrontation with the law.The workers interviewed said their company stopped issuing identification cards in 2013. Without an ID card, a worker cannot benefit from the electronic notification system for transferring companies and cannot receive health insurance. They are also in a precarious situation as unregistered foreigners.
According to the laborers, the police do not scrutinize the kind of ID shown to them, or whether they are on a tourist visa or work visa.
“If police stop us to see our documents, we show them our visa permit and they let us go,” said another worker, Ravi.Those interviewed said their companies do not provide medical insurance or gratuity agreements. They did not reveal their company names for fear of repercussion.“It is very difficult to deal with these cases because we are not here (in Qatar) to police the labor market,” said Houton Homayounpour, who heads the ILO Project Office in Qatar, opened in April.
“If a worker comes to the country on tourist visa and stays back to work, there is not much we can do. It is not our understanding that it is the employers who are making them work on tourist’s visas.”Sharron Burrow, the General Secretary of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) believes the new reforms are meant to ensure that IDs are issued by the State of Qatar.“Workers will no longer rely on their employer to provide their ID card,” Burrow said. Without an ID card, workers can easily be denied medical treatment so to avoid such violations, a worker will be directly linked with the government.Workers interviewed, however, were not aware of the changes in the law. They said they were working illegally under tourist visas and had no direct link with the government of Qatar.