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Migrant workers awaiting justice find themselves homeless in Qatar

On November 18, 2015

Right outside the Indian Embassy in Doha, Qatar is a plot of landscaped space that some call a park. At any given point of time this ‘park’ serves as a home for migrant workers trying to navigate the complicated path to the airport and head back home. Meanwhile, they are at the mercy of their kafeel or employer who holds their passports, and decides on their exit.

There were a half a dozen workers living in this park on the day visited the area. Cardboard sheets make a temporary bed. They use the facilities at either the embassy or the mosque nearby. Fortunately for the current set of stranded workers, it’s a Qatari winter, which means they don’t have to suffer the unbearable summer temperatures.

The park facing the Indian Embassy, in Hilal area, Doha, is often used as a 'shelter' by migrants in distress.

The park facing the Indian Embassy, in Hilal area, Doha, is often used as a 'shelter' by migrants in distress.

The nitty-gritty of their stories differ, but the plot line is the same. They’ve chosen to leave their employer due to abuse or non-payment of wages. They then find their way to the embassy that furnishes them with a standard letter, addressed to the Director of the Search and Follow Up Department (SFD) of the Ministry of Interior (MoI), which the workers refer to as CID. The letter requests the deportation of its bearer.

One letter is dated mid-October. For a month now, every other day the worker makes the trip from Hilal area (where the Indian Embassy is located) in the city centre to the Ar-Rayyan area (SFD's location). Roughly 20 kilometers away, with no direct bus routes, he can get away paying just QR40 – about $11 – for a round trip, if he shares a taxi ride.  He hasn’t earned a salary in two months, and was paid far less than he was promised for his three months of employment. That 40 riyal he needs to get to the 'CID' from the embassy is borrowed or received as charity. On some days he goes hungry to make the trip.

“I was promised 2500 riyals. First month I got 1100, then 1000 and then 700. I was told it was a job as a driver in a company. I ended up working for five households of a single family. And they never gave me food. I had to spend from my salary. I had to leave them. I could not continue.”

He sought the help of the Indian Embassy, which filed his details into a template letter and sent him off to the ‘CID’ office. Drivers fall under the domestic workers category, and hence are not protected under the provisions of the labor law. The only agency that can assist him is the MoI, which presides over the kafala system.  But at the Ministry, he is turned away every single time, refused to be heard. He speaks no Arabic, and the officials don’t engage with him in English, which he can manage. He only understands that they are not willing to take him in, and unless they do so, he won't be able to return to India and his family.

Now destitute and homeless, what he desperately hopes for is to be taken into the detention centre and then be deported, as the Embassy letter requests. He would then have a roof over his head and food to eat for the rest of his time in Qatar. previously reported on those made homeless in the world’s richest country. Following that story, the MoI evacuated the workers and held their employer to task. But these are not stray incidents.

To complain is to suffer more

The system is such that once a worker decides to complain against his employer or attempt to leave his job, he often loses accommodation, pending wages and end of service benefits. Workers have little or no resources to stay and fight a case to win what is contractually owed to them.

Even those who decide to stay and fight are often criminalised and harassed for being undocumented – a situation that is not under their control, as the kafeel or sponsor is supposed to process and renew work permits.

Recently 37 Nepali workers who had filed a case against their employer were arrested in the middle of the night from their labour camps. A few days later, after the embassy intervened, 17  workers who wished to proceed with the case were released, while the others remained in the detention centre awaiting repatriation as per their preference, according to another news report. The workers had not received wages for 15 months.

Migrant workers depend on the help of their compatriots, often double up in each other’s accommodation, and live off charity. Qatar does not have a legal aid system, nor does it run shelters. Embassies allow workers to camp in empty rooms or spaces on their premises, but this is an informal arrangement and in no way can cover all those who seek refuge.

Access to justice continues to be a major issue in Qatar, one that the country has continuously failed to address. It’s not just about having their cases heard in a court of law, but providing them with resources and sustenance to stay and fight for their rights. The environment is hostile towards civil societies, and those that come forward to help workers do so at great personal risk.

Recent ‘improvements’

Qatar has made a flurry of announcements in the last few weeks, all purportedly to improve labour conditions of migrant workers. The Wage Protection System, after much delay and with a few hiccups, finally launched this month. 

Furthermore, the widely touted amendments to kafala have relabeled old practices rather than substantively change the oppressive system.

The 100,000-capacity Labor City was opened with great publicity earlier this month. The model complex is seen as a step towards correcting wrongs in the labor market. However, rights activists raise a few concerns. Amnesty’s Mustafa Qadri points out that the degree of security may jeopardize resident's right to privacy. Speaking to local news outlet Doha News he said: “…such surveillance measures make it harder for human rights workers to visit employee accommodation and speak to expats […] That environment will lead to more challenges in investigating conditions and speaking to workers about their broader situations.”

The labor city also stresses the isolation and segregation of migrant workers.

No doubt, no effort has been spared to make the Labor City a model housing project. That comes at a price. A Nepalese supervisor, speaking to, said the rent per month per person was QR750. This in effect makes it unaffordable to most workers, who earn between 700 and 1200 riyals a month. Only larger multi-national companies would have the resources to pay this hefty fee.

Much of the abuse and exploitation happens with smaller contractors and sub-contractors, who would either be unable or reluctant to pay high rents.

As our earlier story on the homeless in Qatar showed, any costs incurred for improving conditions are passed on to the workers. “Once the government inspectors stepped up their surveillance on the labour camps the companies were forced to implement changes in the ‘camps’, but at the expense of the workers, deducting more money from their salaries. They reduced the number of bed spaces in a room, and provided cleaner facilities for toilets and kitchens but they also deducted more from the workers’ salaries.”

If Qatar is truly committed to improving the lot of its million-plus migrant workers, it should prioritize decent and affordable housing for all levels of workers; and shelters – not detention centres – for those in distress.