What’s it like to live and work in Doha as a migrant worker? Jennifer and Steve Parenteau lived in Doha for six years, not as migrant workers but as expats, with some of the privileges such a life affords. As Jennifer says, “We were allowed to walk on the Corniche (the wharf) any time we wished. We were allowed to enter any of the shopping malls we liked, at any time of the day. Parks with grass were places we could go and sit freely. Not so for those who were labelled ‘bachelors’ or ‘unseemly’ single men, who were turned away from all of the above locations because they were considered unworthy to be present. I was told by a Qatari mother: ‘I would not want those men looking at my daughter,’ because they were bachelors. Oh dear, you might say, but it gets worse!”
This is a three part article that looks at Doha from different perspectives. Part One will introduce some of the workers they met and share their experiences. Part Two tells the general story of conditions in Doha, living and working conditions as they found them. Part Three details some attempts at bridging the great divide they found ourselves in – between the privileged and the underprivileged residents of this vastly rich developing country of Qatar.
By Jennifer Parenteau
Doha is a city in which migrant workers outnumber Qataris more than ten to one! Daily airport queues exude a pensive calm as tentative new workers arrive from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Philippines, Egypt, China, and other countries around the world. Skilled and unskilled males and females, all wait to be picked up by their new ‘owners’. The majority are young, naive men hired as laborers on construction sites. Amongst these you will see groups of frightened, tired young women, clustered together wondering where they might end up. They will become maids or cleaners or domestic workers. Both have likely traversed a recruitment process starting in their home country, where they begged and borrowed substantial sums in order to pay the recruitment company for finding them a job, a hopeful way forward, and to organize the eventual transfer.
As we met and talked to many of these migrant workers, common patterns of miscommunication emerged.
For example, Raju from Nepal had been promised a plumbing job for S$400 a month (in his field of expertise). On arriving at the airport he was handed his contract and taken to his eight-man bedroom with no further explanation. When he checked the contract it then stated that he would be working for another company as a cleaner earning S$175 a month.
To make matters worse for Raju, he was given a broken bed with no blankets and no pillow. He had no money and no one to ask for help. His roommates were from other countries and looked down on him as well – this is a land of evident discrimination, starting from pay status where Nepalese are at the bottom. He owed his agent now more than he could ever hope to save. At home his wife and son waited hopefully for the money he had faithfully planned to send them each month, and now he was trapped in a two-year contract without means for earlier release.
Sadam was assigned to a group of workers sent to a remote northern part of Qatar to weld windows and gates for a factory complex. They were housed in crowded rooms and given daily food and transport to the work site. However, they were not paid salary month after month.
Finally, after five months with no wages, Sadam tried to get his team to complain. Scared because it could mean that the company might send them home where they also owed a recruitment agency quite a large sum of money, they felt that they had no option but to wait it out. Doha does display a court system which will hear complaints… So alone, Sadam filed his complaint in court, and was told to come back the next day, and the next… while staying (hiding) with some friends in an already crowded room in Doha – his housing 110 km distant – while he waited. He was issued with papers stating that he had a pending court case, allowing him to legally stay in Qatar without being jailed, but he could no longer work legally. Sadam was summoned back to court more than 35 times during subsequent months until finally his employer was required to give most of the money owed and his airfare home, but still he was in debt to his friends who took care of him this whole time and he still owed his debt at home.
Obviously the tedious court system made it nearly impossible for workers to register and win a claim in any meaningful way.
When such a worker leaves Qatar, he can not get a work visa there for another two years, and may even be banned from the region entirely for having complained. Sadam was one of many such examples we came across in Doha, but most of our other stories did not end in compensation. Rather, unscrupulous companies, upon hearing a worker complaint, might simply drive the complaining worker to the airport and send him or her home!
Flora was working in a hair salon with a team of other Filipino workers. She was recruited out of Manila by an agency supplying manpower to a chain of hair salons in Doha. Her supervisor was an Indian woman, but on her contract it said that her employer was a Qatari woman, whom Flora never met.
Flora and her fellow workers were housed in an illegal living situation in the basement of one of the hair salons, a basement that can only be accessed through one door. All windows were too small to crawl through. The apartment had a substandard kitchen and bath, and the only living area slept 12 girls. Their immediate supervisor had a room to herself and was responsible for locking the front door all night. In fact all of those girls were locked in each night. As well as this, on their one day off, the door was locked from the other side, meaning that the girls had to knock, and get permission to come out.
The salons were open from 10 am to 11 pm. The owner of the salon would tell the police (who occasionally did check on these things) that there were two shifts of girls working in the salon. This was not true of course, as those girls were working for 13 hours a day with no overtime pay, and no lunch period. The girls were warned not to speak to the police.
Flora was not paid the required holiday pay or the one month yearly bonus she was entitled to. She also tried to get others to join her in a complaint, but none of them had the courage. Many of them have small children or aging parents at home to send money to. The risk of losing the little they had was too great for them. Flora took herself to the court and made her complaint. She was now owed around S$2,500. As soon as her ‘owner’ found out about this, she simply locked her out of her accommodation and her job, and tried to defame her by telling the police that Flora had men in her accommodation and that she had run away with one of them. Flora spent the next 8 months going back and forth to court. She had to borrow clothes and appeal to others to care for her. Even the Human Rights office in Doha was no help at all to this ‘lowly worker’. We are still waiting to hear how it all turned out.
These stories are only a few of the many we came across. The pattern of mistreatment was repeated over and over. From workers who dared to complain being sent home on the next plane, to switched contracts, to working in extreme temperatures, to lack of pay, to inferior living conditions. Qatar has become the richest country per capita in the world, and so it seems untenable that such prejudice and cruelty exists in a place where the Muslim populace prides itself in practicing equality and fairness to all. Not so.
Because of increased interest in the plight of workers, Qatar continues to publicize that they will bring in better conditions. There are rumors for change in the law that doesn’t allow workers to change jobs (the Kafala system). A Human Rights office exists, and advocacy groups are identified, but phone contacts and addresses are hard to locate, and workers struggle to find their way around. Currently, even though illegal, it is difficult to get companies to even allow workers to retain their passports! They are truly prisoners in a foreign land. Are new laws simply just another smoke screen? It seems that no executive branch of government is functioning well enough to uphold their stated laws. It also seems that there are many people quietly making a lot of money bringing workers into Qatar. Money changes hands for permits, work contracts, accommodation, etc. Seemingly subcontracting companies compete to see which can use and abuse workers the most, and still get away with it!
The world is watching with great interest as Qatar prepares itself for large sporting events. Bottom line: Working in Doha may not be as attractive as it seems.