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How wage abuse is hurting Qatar’s migrant workers

Migrant workers say they are struggling to survive due to salary delays, non-payment of dues and NOC restrictions.


By Faras Ghani


Al Jazeera (26.08.2020) – https://bit.ly/3lC0RWw – Angeline arrived in Qatar in 2018 hoping to provide for her three children, two brothers and mother back in the Philippines.


This was her first overseas employment stint and she wanted to make enough money to be able to buy a house for her family.


Now, Angeline is struggling to survive and waiting for the end of her contract so she can go home.


“We’ve not been paid since April 1 as we’ve not been working since then [due to the coronavirus pandemic],” she told Al Jazeera, adding that her employers gave staff a one-time allowance of 200 Qatari riyals ($55) in April.


“They said it was a cash advance and will be deducted from the salary once we get paid.”


The cleaning company that Angeline works for has, like thousands of other businesses across Qatar, felt the brunt of government-enforced coronavirus restrictions.


In June, Qatar’s government told Al Jazeera it had introduced a 75-billion-riyal ($20.6bn) stimulus package to help companies continue operations and retain jobs, and to help those in “financial difficulty to pay salaries and rent”.


But Angeline says her employers have refused to support staff financially and have even confiscated passports and ATM cards – the latter action is illegal under Qatari law.


“In May, they told us they will give us 400 [riyals, or $110] if we sign a new contract. Those who refused were given another deductible cash advance of 200 [riyals]. We had no option but to agree. Otherwise, we would’ve starved to death.”


Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and its human rights record have been under the spotlight since it was awarded the hosting of football’s 2022 FIFA World Cup.


Under Qatar’s “kafala” (Arabic word for sponsorship) system, migrant workers must obtain their employers’ permission – a no-objection certificate (NOC) – before changing jobs, a law that rights activists say ties their presence in the country to their employers and could lead to abuse and exploitation.


The Government Communication Office (GCO) told Al Jazeera: “Qatar has made substantial progress on labour reforms and it continues to work with NGOs, including the International Labour Organization, to ensure that these reforms are far-reaching and effective.”


However, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, released on Monday, said the country’s “efforts to protect migrant workers’ right to accurate and timely wages have largely proven unsuccessful”.


“Despite a handful of reforms in recent years, withheld and unpaid salaries, as well as other wage abuses, are persistent and widespread across at least 60 employers and companies in Qatar,” the report added.


HRW said most of the migrant workers it spoke to for the report experienced salary delays, non-payment of dues and end-of-service benefits. Some said “employers made arbitrary deductions from their salaries”.


In response, the GCO said: “Nearly all individuals who come to Qatar for employment never experience any form of wage abuse. There are a few, isolated, instances where workers experience this issue.”


In June, Al Jazeera published a report on how the coronavirus shutdown affected Qatar’s migrant workers. It spoke to hundreds of workers employed by private companies in the country and found that most were in a “no work, no pay” situation, struggling to survive despite the government’s stimulus package.


Al Jazeera spoke to numerous affected migrant workers, including driving instructors, salon staff, baristas, chefs, private taxi drivers, small business owners, and hotel and hospitality staff. Most of them have not received any assistance from their employers and are too afraid to complain.


“The [GCO’s] statement is not consistent with the findings that we have, but also with the almost periodic media reports we see of hundreds of migrant workers stranded after their employer stops paying them for months on end,” Hiba Zayadin, HRW’s Gulf researcher, told Al Jazeera.


“This is a pervasive issue, not just in Qatar but across the Gulf. It is important to stress that our report does not say nor intend to imply that all migrant workers in Qatar suffer wage abuses. Instead, it seeks to show that they work against a backdrop that both enables widespread wage abuse and fails to adequately protect them from it when it occurs.”


Al Jazeera has learned that despite a lot of coronavirus-enforced restrictions being lifted as part of Qatar’s four-phase plan to reopen the country and economy, a number of private sponsors are still not paying staff, despite making them work.


“I’m working six hours daily all week but getting paid just over seven riyals [$1.9] per hour,” staff from another cleaning company told Al Jazeera. “Because, until now, the company is still not operating fully, they said they are unable to pay us what the contract says.


“My last salary was paid in March. Since then, the company has not given us anything, not even a single riyal. We are only able to survive through private donations of rice and food items.”


Some workers said they have not been paid since January. Others are being paid a fraction of their salaries.


Workers have also told Al Jazeera some employers transfer salaries into the workers’ bank accounts but force the employees to hand over the ATM cards before withdrawing the amount.


Wage abuse


GCO’s claim that wage abuse is experienced in isolated instances has surprised rights organisations.


“This response was not just inaccurate but really disrespectful and unmindful of what workers are going through. To deny this, especially in this period where job cuts and pay cuts are the norm, was ill-advised,” Vani Saraswathi, director of projects at Migrant-Rights.Org, told Al Jazeera.


“The GCO only had to peruse the complaints filed at various embassies and the MADLSA [labour ministry] to realise these are not isolated cases and is so widespread that it runs into tens of thousands. If they don’t recognise the problem, how are they going to resolve it?”


The GCO said businesses that ceased services following government instructions earlier this year were ordered to pay “basic salary and allowances”.


It added that the recommendations put forward in the HRW report “are already being implemented or on track to begin implementation”, including laws that remove the NOC requirement and the introduction of a minimum wage.


“Qatar’s labour programme protects all workers in all stages of their employment cycle,” the statement said.


But HRW’s Zayadin said while “Qatar has made many promises to migrant workers over the past several years and has introduced some reforms”, they were not going far enough.


“Time and again, migrant workers in Qatar have been disappointed to find that the marketed reforms have done little to improve their lived realities in the country,” she added.


“If Qatar truly wants these reforms to reverberate on the ground and to make a difference in the lives of those they aim to target, they need to abolish kafala in its entirety, allow workers to join trade unions, and introduce reforms that address harmful business practices.”


Workers are also losing faith in the system due to the barriers to accessing justice that exist in Qatar, Saraswathi said, echoing the fear among migrant workers of repercussions if they complain.


She added that for workers the announcement of reforms or a report means little.


Qatar’s government said it encourages workers to lodge their complaints with the labour ministry via a phone call, text or email.


In June, the GCO said: “Over 12,000 inspections have been carried out at workplaces and accommodation sites to confirm that companies are implementing all COVID-19 precautionary measures. There is no excuse for any company to violate Qatar’s labour laws, including late payment of salaries.”


For Angeline, who is scared to speak up, there is only one thing on her mind.


“My family is struggling to survive. They had to sell things in the house to buy food. Even here, it’s very difficult for me and my colleagues but we are very scared of the employer as we’ve heard stories about blacklisting and deportation in the past.


“The only thing on my mind is to leave.”


Workers’ names have been changed to protect identities. None of the workers wanted to name their businesses for fear of reprisal but some have reported them to Qatar’s labour ministry.

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Qatar: Little progress on protecting migrant workers

As World Cup draws closer, government yet to meet key reform promises.


HRW (24.08.2020) – https://bit.ly/2QHkpdT – Qatari authorities’ efforts to protect migrant workers’ right to accurate and timely wages have largely proven unsuccessful, Human Rights Watch said in a report and an accompanying video released today. Despite a handful of reforms in recent years, withheld and unpaid salaries, as well as other wage abuses, are persistent and widespread across at least 60 employers and companies in Qatar.


The 78-page report, “‘How Can We Work Without Wages?’: Salary Abuses Facing Migrant Workers Ahead of Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022” shows that employers across Qatar frequently violate workers’ right to wages and that Qatar has failed to meet its 2017 commitment to the International Labour Organization (ILO) to protect migrant workers from wage abuses and to abolish the kafala system, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers. Human Rights Watch found case after case of wage abuse across various occupations including security guards, servers, baristas, bouncers, cleaners, management staff, and construction workers.


“Ten years since Qatar won the right to host the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup 2022, migrant workers are still facing delayed, unpaid, and deducted wages,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We have heard of workers starving due to delayed wages, indebted workers toiling in Qatar only to get underpaid wages, and workers trapped in abusive working conditions due to fear of retaliation.”


Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 93 migrant workers working for more than 60 companies or employers and reviewed legal documents and reports for this report.


Qatar has been dependent on 2 million migrant workers, making up about 95 percent of its total labor force. Many are building or servicing the stadiums, transportation, hotels, and infrastructure for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2022. While they come to Qatar in hope of stable jobs and incomes, many are instead met with wage abuses that drive them further into debt and trap them in these jobs with ineffective mechanisms of redress.


Fifty-nine workers said their wages had been delayed, withheld, or not paid; 9 workers said they had not been paid because employers said they didn’t have enough clients; 55 said they weren’t paid for overtime even though they worked more than 10 hours a day; and 13 said their employers had replaced their original employment contract with one favoring employers. Twenty said they didn’t receive mandatory end-of-service benefits; and 12 said employers made arbitrary deductions from their salaries.


Wage abuses have been further exacerbated since Covid-19. Some employers used the pandemic as pretext to withhold wages or refuse to pay outstanding wages to workers who are detained and forcibly repatriated. Some workers said they could not even afford to buy food. Others said they went into debt to survive.


A 38-year-old human resources manager at a construction company in Qatar, which has a contract to work on the external part of a stadium for the World Cup, said that his monthly salary has been delayed for up to 4 months at least 5 times in 2018 and 2019. “I am affected because due to the delayed salary, I am late in my credit card payments, rent, and children’s school fees,” he said. “Even right now my salary is two months delayed.… It is the same story for all the staff on my level and even the laborers. I can’t imagine how the laborers manage – they can’t take loans from the bank the way I can.”


Human Rights Watch found that the kafala system was one of the factors facilitating abuse. In 2017, Qatar promised to abolish the kafala system, and while the introduction of some measures has chipped away at it, the system still grants employers unchecked power and control over migrant workers.


Wage abuses are also driven by deceptive recruitment practices both in Qatar and in the workers’ home countries that require them to pay between about US$700 and $2,600 to secure jobs in Qatar. By the time workers arrive in Qatar, they are already indebted and trapped in jobs that often pay less than promised. Human Rights Watch found that 72 of the workers interviewed had taken loans to pay recruitment fees. Business practices, including the so-called “pay when paid” clause, worsen the wage abuse. These practices allow subcontractors that have not been paid to delay payments to workers.


“Since August 2019, I have been waiting for money,” said a 34-year-old engineer who went to labor court over 7 months of unpaid wages and who has been borrowing money from friends in Qatar to send to his family in Nepal. He first went to court a year ago and is still waiting for his payments: “I am starving since I don’t even have money for food. How will I pay back my loans if I don’t get my salary [through the legal process]? Sometimes I think suicide is my only option.”


Wage abuses are among the most common and most devastating violations of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar and the Gulf region, where various iterations of the kafala system exist. To tackle wage abuse, the Qatari government created the Wage Protection System (WPS) in 2015, Labour Dispute Resolution Committees in 2017, and the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund in 2018.


But Human Rights Watch found that the WPS can be better described as a wage monitoring system with significant gaps in its oversight capacity. Employers frequently take away workers’ ATM cards, which are supposed to be used by workers to draw their wages. Similarly, taking wage abuse cases to the committees can be difficult, costly, time-consuming, and ineffective, and workers fear retaliation by employers. And the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, meant to ensure that workers are paid when companies cannot pay, only became operational earlier this year.


In October 2019, the government announced significant reforms that would establish a nondiscriminatory minimum wage for all migrant workers in Qatar and allow them to change or leave their jobs without employer consent. However, other elements of the system that can leave employers with some control over their workers appear slated to remain. The reforms were expected to be rolled out in January 2020.


Human Rights Watch sent the findings of this report along with queries to Qatar’s Labor Ministry and Interior Ministry, as well as FIFA and Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy. We received responses from the Supreme Committee, Qatar’s Government Communications Office (GCO), and FIFA.


In response to a request for comment, FIFA wrote: “FIFA and its trusted partner, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, have a zero-tolerance policy to any form of discrimination and to wage abuse. Through our work to protect the rights of FIFA World Cup workers in Qatar, FIFA and the SC, are aware of the importance of wage protection measures in the country and this is why we have put in place robust systems to prevent and mitigate wage abuse on FIFA World Cup sites, as well as mechanisms for workers to raise potential grievances and practices to provide for remediation where companies fail to live up to our standards. FIFA strongly encourages workers and NGOs who want to raise concerns with respect to FIFA World Cup sites through the SC’s Workers’ Welfare hotline (see here). This will enable the teams on the ground to verify such information and to take appropriate action wherever it is needed, as always in the best interest of respective workers.”


FIFA encouraged workers and nongovernmental organizations who want to raise concerns with respect to FIFA World Cup sites through the Supreme Committee’s Workers’ Welfare hotline.


“Qatar has two years left before players kick the first ball at the FIFA World Cup,” Page said. “The clock is running out and Qatar needs to show that it will live up to its promise to abolish the kafala system, improve its salary monitoring systems, speed up its redress mechanisms, and adopt additional measures to tackle wage abuse.”

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