Qatar ‘labor camp’ fire exposes more frailties of kafala and the labor law

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The 452 workers who lost every last scrap of their belongings in a fire in Qatar on Friday morning still have their passports in tact. Because the passports have been in the possession of their employer since they started work, Migrant-Rights.org learned while speaking to the victims.

May 13 2015

This is the kind of dichotomy that provides warped reasoning for the support of kafala and its many intrusive provisions. The passports were saved because it was in the ‘safe’ possession of the employer.

If the staff were housed in safe accommodation, they could well take responsibility to secure their papers. Cramped 6 to 8 in a tiny room does not allow them this luxury.

The passport, much like a bail or release papers, is given back on the judgement of the employer; When he or she deems it fit for the employee to be trusted with their most important papers. As per Qatari labor laws, it is illegal for employers to confiscate passports, yet it remains a rampant practice amongst employers of lower-income migrants. According to a Qatar University study in 2013, 90 percent of workers surveyed said their employers retained their passports.

The passport, much like a bail or release papers, is given back on the judgement of the employer

The 452 workers, mainly from Sri Lanka and Nepal, were employed by Group Seven, a contracting company that provides ‘tea boys’ (hospitality staff) and cleaners to bigger organisations.

The workers MR spoke to had been contracted to some of the biggest entities in Qatar, including Qatar Insurance Company, several ministries, and several departments of the Ministry of Interior, including the fire department.

One of the workers, who has been with the company for nearly five years, says he was not aware that it was illegal for the company to take his passport.

The workers had complained previously about the ‘camp’ they were living in 'Camp'* No 19 Sanaya (Industrial Area). After the fire they were temporarily moved to ‘Camp’ 38 in Sahilya, before being moved to the even more remote and isolated area of Shahaniya.

“This camp is much better. New. Concrete. But there are no facilities around. No shops,” one of them said. They’ve been given a relief of 200 riyals to secure essential goods they might need.

The isolated (almost ghettoised) accommodations provided to low-income migrant workers delays  access to basic relief and support.

The fire broke out  at 11 a.m. last Friday, and only on Saturday morning did community groups manage to provide relief. Employers did not show up to talk to the workers until 6 p.m. that evening. The Sri Lankan embassy fetched up even later, after Sri Lankan media took up the issue.

There is so little cognisance of the problems faced by workers that there virtually are no accessible mechanisms for redressal or support.

The workers remain unaware of their rights or whom they should turn to in times of trouble.

Both workers and community members who are helping out say no labor inspector has visited the site so far, or even spoken to those affected.

Qatar’s treatment of its low-income migrant workers has been widely criticised since its successful 2022 World Cup bid and the country has made repeated promises of reform, with little to show. Come May 14, it will be a year since  Qatar announced – with great fanfare –  that it would scrap the kafala system and reform the labor law. These promises remain just so.

The fact that workers had to depend on the community volunteers to fetch up help sheds light on yet another emblematic problem in Qatar: The lack of civil society organisations, state-run shelters, and legal aid. There is so little cognisance of the problems faced by workers that there virtually are no accessible mechanisms for redressal or support.

The fact that these workers were contracted to ministries and large companies only goes to show that these problems are not  isolated to smaller projects or contracts.

Because the fire occurred on a weekend morning, there were no fatalities. But Qatar is no stranger to fatal fires, with lax safety standards all around, including luxury malls. So, little chance that isolated ‘labor camps’ will provide a safe living environment?

*'Labor Camp' is the term used for low-income migrant workers' accommodation in the GCC. As inappropriate as it is, that term describes the squalor and desolation of these housing units.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East