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Jennifer and Steve Parenteau lived in Qatar for six years before coming to Singapore last year. This is Part Two of their three-part story about migrant workers in Qatar. In Part One they profiled the stories of some of the workers they met. Here in Part Two, is a general story of conditions in Doha, living and working conditions as they found them.
By Jennifer Parenteau
Qatar is a Middle Eastern country where temperatures range from 28 to over 50 degrees. Its capital city Doha is a city of cranes, roadworks and construction! A changing landscape, a country on the move, you might say. The changes that have taken place over the past 20 years would astound you. The other thing that might astound you is the enormity of the migrant worker population – about 3 million among the local population of only 250,000! Workers pour in each day from surrounding countries – with a promise of work, a means to support families in need back home, and a hope in their hearts that this will be the way to begin a long climb out of the poverty cycle they have found themselves in. They come from countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Philippines, Egypt, China, places where work is almost impossible to find, both in the skilled and unskilled sectors. They come with big ideas and great promises to those they have had to leave at home. They have signed two-year contracts and are ready to work hard… but immediately they find themselves in a very difficult situation.
If you dare to drive out to the sprawling, chaotic, industrial area of this city, you will find choking, dusty streets filled with worker dorms set amidst industrial concrete and metal buildings filled with rooms where men are stacked in – bunk by bunk. Each floor may have one bathroom of sorts, (we have seen men taking showers using the hand held toilet washer), and perhaps one kitchen servicing three floors or about 300 tired and hungry men! Rooms are allocated rather randomly to men from diverse ethnic backgrounds, differing diet preferences and very different religious practices. Already things are not easy. We met many very unhappy first comers.
Early each day, non-airconditioned buses take workers to their worksites. You likely see them asleep on their crowded buses at the start and end of a very long day. Work in the construction industry includes heavy labour and long days. During the heat of summer there is a law in Qatar that says no one should work in the middle of a hot day. When temperatures soar to 45+ degrees mid-day, you can imagine that mornings and afternoons are equally unbearable atop a scaffold somewhere. The statistics are not good. Men are dying every day on building sites in Doha. Many cases of dehydration pass through hospitals and clinics daily. In February, the Guardian newspaper revealed that more than 500 Indian migrant workers had died in Qatar since January 2012 and more than 380 Nepalese had died in 2012 and 2013.
Workers are supposed to have medical coverage. One main public hospital in Doha itself and several smaller clinics are bursting with problems. In order for a worker to access either of these he first needs transport, time off work and help to communicate. Any day he does not go into work, he loses pay for that day and often suffers a penalty as well. During our time there, we assisted workers to the outpatient departments through a daunting system, and unfortunately even to the morgue to allow companions to witness the dead body of a friend, achieving very sketchy explanation of cause for the young men who just wanted answers about their loss. Why would someone so young have died so quickly? What do we tell his family at home? We don’t know; and it hurts worse knowing he died alone…
You might wonder why there is so little help for workers in trouble. Seven years ago, when we first arrived in Doha we discovered that helping workers was somewhat frowned upon and people who tried to visit worker camps with food and clothing were actually accused of proselytizing. Their contacts were terminated in some cases, or simply not renewed in others. We quickly understood that the powers that be did not want the greater world to see the conditions in which our workers lived. Camps tended to be hidden from view in outer areas of the city. We realized that the only way to actually help was to do so in secret and on the quiet. Losing our jobs would mean losing our ability to help. So it became a weekly trek into camps after dark to sit in those rooms and talk to the men, sharing phone contacts for the worst of emergencies. A very small contribution to a desperate situation.
Not many expats wanted to risk the ire of a legal system with its own rules. The policy in Qatar is to arrest and jail first, then ask the questions. There are thousands of workers out there, and so little help for the masses. Even today, journalists are still being harassed for interviewing and filming workers. The recent interest in the treatment of construction workers has been very unwelcome attention for those in Qatar who would rather keep the truth about the treatment of workers hidden until all of those new sporting stadiums and railways are built.
For many workers, the only way he or she can have a shot at justice is to make the case public, but this is only possible if you have connections to outside and a working internet connection. Presently there are many workers languishing in jail waiting for someone to help them. We know this because a colleague of ours, Dorje Gurung, was wrongfully arrested and jailed last year. While he was in there, he talked to many poor Nepalese workers who did not know why they were being kept there, some for the past two years or more! In Dorje’s own case, it was not until there was a public outcry about his situation that spread worldwide on the internet, that he was quickly released and exited from the country.
For a brief account of the Dorje Gurung case, see this post on nepaliblogger.com
Unfortunately the embassies that represent workers from all of these regions are either not willing or unable to help. When we took several workers through that pathway, we were met with varying degrees of sympathy, from vague promises of help to refusal to see us at all. When I asked the police if that would be a good place to go for help, they simply said – they have too many people in trouble, there is no room for more.
In the Philippines Embassy for example, there is a room for abandoned or abused maids to seek shelter. This room is so crowded that the girls are sleeping in shifts on benches. Again, the only way these girls can get help is from concerned individuals hearing of their plight and raising the air fare to send them home. This is not the place to discuss the kinds of abuse that many of these girls have experienced, but you can be assured that Qatar does not protect the innocent or the vulnerable members of the workforce.
The saddest comment I heard while living in Doha went something like this: ‘These people are lucky to have work at all. They would not have a job in their own country, we are doing them a favour’. Hmmm.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our