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Not just Kafala: Qatar’s band-aid treatment for a deep wound does not recognise 6 main systemic failures

On February 13, 2016
If you are a lower-income migrant worker in Qatar and find yourself in an unfavourable employment situation, the feeble system in place to ‘protect’ your rights will more often than not fail you.

Qatar's failure is due largely to its stubborn stand of not recognising migrant workers as critical players in national building, deserving of equal status. It is also in part due to weak implementation of existing regulations, and a stranglehold over any form of independent rights-based social work.

With growing criticism of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, the country has worked harder to portray workers as the temporary other, with official communication referring to them as either ‘guest’ or ‘transient’ workers, thereby framing the problems they face as also temporary, rather than one endemic to its labor market structure.

If you are stranded – wages unpaid, passport confiscated, undocumented because the employer has not processed your work visa – the best case scenario would be your immediate repatriation, with only some of your wages paid.

Fortunately, most of you reading this, are not lower income migrant workers, scraping the bottom of the barrel of Qatar woeful migrant ‘policing’ policies. The Ministry of Interior both governs and polices migrants, while the onus of proving employer malpractice is on the worker himself. Until you offer this evidence, you will be held guilty of ‘absconding’ or ‘running away’ if you’ve left an abusive employment situation, or accused of attempting to unionise if you refuse to continue working (strike) without pay or better terms.
Once a worker has left the place of employment, the employer washes their hands off all commitment towards him/her.

It would be a very lucky worker indeed who manages to recover unpaid wages, receive end of service benefits, an air ticket and exit visa. Most will be clueless and run from pillar to post, trying to make sense of a system that often doesn’t make sense to its key stakeholders itself.

A stranded worker’s education is by his peers. A roommate’s friend who has had experience filing complaints, or a colleague whose brother had some success getting an exit permit. There is no other information available to them.

Lack of post-arrival training; distances and access to redressal; unregulated sub-contractors; lack of shelters; absence of legal aid; and prohibiting any civil society activism. These are the top 6 systemic problems outside of, but compounding the issues intrinsic to, the Kafala that shows how Qatar fails over 92% of its labor force.

1. Post arrival training

Or the lack thereof. Any orientation and education of migrant workers has to be done pre-arrival, often by ill-equipped training centres or corrupt recruitment agents.
Access to information on rights is limited or non-existent. There is no engagement with the worker on arrival to educate him on his rights and responsibilities.

The Supreme Committee for Delivering Legacy (SCDL) which is the organising committee of the FIFA 2022 in its latest report highlights its efforts in ethical recruitment and employment. It does look at grievance mechanism for workers on the payroll of its contractors.

Much of the exploitation and abuse happens a few rungs down in the employment ladder, with subcontractors (see point 4).

This requires more than just standards applicable to a niche group of projects and companies.
It requires a commitment absent at the national level, even under the intensity of recent scrutiny.

2. Distances and access

Workers are housed in areas that are 15 to 20 kms from the city centre, where the National Human Rights Committee is situated.

If you live in the Industrial area around the new West End complex, the Labor Department is about 8kms, and fairly well connected.

To get to the NHRC would be more difficult. If you are housed in Muraik or Saliya, it would require a couple of changes of buses and a 20 to 30 minute walk at the least, with a total commute time of between 1.5 to 2 hours.

If you were to take a taxi,  and manage to find one, it would cost upwards of QR50. Most workers seek help only after months of abuse and exploitation, by which time, they are completely broke, with not even enough money for food.

[tweetable]It seems almost deliberate to isolate workers in such a way, making them completely dependent on the employer to transport them to their work places[/tweetable]. For everything else, including entertainment and filing complaints, they are left to their own devices and limited resources.

3. Sub-contractors

Both the Qatar Foundation and SCDL have commendable workers welfare standards. However, these fail to cover the sub-contractors, who are often manpower supply companies that warehouse workers and call them out to work on the bigger projects when there’s a need. The workers under the sponsorship of subcontractors are not on the payroll of these bigger companies and contractors, and so do not come under their audit.

Workers are recruited without a proper job order, and if there are no projects immediately available they invariably become stranded.

In the last month has been in touch with workers stranded by sub-contractors.

Two of them were subcontracted to work for a company that is not their sponsor. After completing a six month project, the workers were sent back to India until a new project came up a few weeks later. The workers were brought back to Qatar in August 2015 but the project they were brought to work on was soon shut down.
From August to December 2015, the workers were paid sporadically, and their work visa was not processed.
The workers then had to seek redressal at the NHRC and were stuck in the quagmire explained above.
They were finally repatriated after negotiations (by a local community worker) with the sub-contractor, but without receiving back pay.

The MoI mentioned in a recent release that 8900 companies were blacklisted. While this is certainly a good move, the blacklisting happens without resolving pending cases.

[tweetable]Once the company’s licence is revoked, they are no long accountable for the workers[/tweetable] they had brought in. They cannot even issue an exit permit, as their status as a company is suspended.

These sub-contractors continue to fly under the radar, with a blacklisting proving more damaging to the interests of the workers than the owners of the company itself.

4. Shelters

The Philippines embassy runs a shelter, mainly catering to domestic workers, and there is another shelter run by the erstwhile Qatar Foundation for Combatting Human Trafficking, which deals with cases of domestic abuse.

Besides this, shelters are informal arrangements within embassies. Workers often become homeless or share cramped spaces with helpful compatriots.

The overcrowded detention and deportation centre – a jailhouse – accommodates workers who should ideally be in a shelter.

The UN Special Rapporteur in his report on human rights of migrants in Qatar said:

“...instead of building a new ward for women at the deportation centre, would provide a much better and cheaper solution. Similarly, children should never find themselves in detention: migrant women with children should always be hosted in shelters.”

The normalisation of the detention centre as a shelter is so widespread, often receives requests from workers seeking assistance to get into the detention centre.

This is also the advice extended by embassies to the workers, to ‘turn themselves in’.
The detention centre doesn’t always take in workers who are stranded. They do so only when the repatriation papers are processed and tickets secured, so the turnaround time is shorter.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi and the UAE do have shelters, even if woefully run.

5.Lack of legal aid

Despite severe criticism, access to justice continues to be a problem that Qatar has not acted upon.

“I am particularly concerned at the situation of people in vulnerable situations, including women, migrants and domestic workers, who face additional hurdles when seeking to access justice.” – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul.

Knaul’s report followed a 8-day visit to Qatar and was released in January 2014.

While the revamping or restructuring of the judiciary may take a while, Qatar’s continuing ironclad control over any kind of civil society engagement means there is no legal aid available.

Filing a labor complaint or seeking redressal would break the spirit of a worker in distress. Or trap them in situations they cannot make sense of.

Last week, four Indian fishermen on a Saudi boat accused of fishing in Qatar waters were fined QR20,000 each by a Doha court. Local news portal Doha News reports:

"After spending five nights in jail, they signed a document written in Arabic that they believe was an admission that they had strayed into Qatar’s territorial waters." 

You have one of three options to seek redressal, all of which will at some point land you at one of the departments of Ministry of Interior for repatriation or deportation. If you have the financial wherewithal and support on the ground, your case might go to the judicial courts.

-Go to your embassy, which will provide you with a letter to turn yourself into the CIED and the be ‘deported’ from there. For most embassies, resolution means repatriating the workers. There is no question of fighting for the workers rights that include back pay.
Even if the letter is issued immediately, the CIED will take anything between a week to one month to resolve this. This means contacting the sponsor (‘kafeel’) and asking to return the passport and provide an exit visa.

-Go to the NHRC, which will ask you to file a complaint in English or Arabic. The staff who interact with workers speak Arabic and a little English. Most workers speak neither, and depend on the office assistants to interpret. A lot is lost in translation. For instance, in one recent case the staff manning the complaints unit insisted on a copy of a valid Qatari id card, failing to understand that the complaint was about the company not processing their visa papers. Workers who go to the NHRC are often redirected back to the Labor Department or Embassy.

-Go to the labor department (referred to by migrant workers as labor court) where if the complaint is received in full and with clarity, then some kind of arbitration would be pursued, with calls to sponsor to return passports if they have confiscated it, and pay dues or provide tickets. The sponsor or kafeel only has to accuse the employee of having run away, to not pay repatriation costs.

[tweetable]Allowing legal aid clinics to function independently would provide great relief to workers[/tweetable]. There is definitely a pressing need for one in detention centres, where some who are detained do not even know what steps to follow to secure a release. has previously reported on a worker who was detained for 17 months without proper cause.

Qatar does not allow unions or workers associations.Because of this, a group of workers who have a complaint against their employer still have to file separate cases. They cannot file a collective case, as it would be seen as unionising, and hence illegal.

6. Civil Society

There are no independent civil society organisations in the country and the ones that are state-sanctioned are involved in charity work, mostly outside of Qatar. The problems within the country are not deemed as pressing.

There are diaspora organizations that work under the aegis of the respective embassies, like the Indian Community Benevolence Fund for instance. These organisations again are involved mainly in relief work, and don't challenge the system or attempt to traverse it to help workers. They do critical work all the same, like help repatriate workers.

The MoI statistics released recently say 10,086 tickets were given free of cost to workers.
Recent evidence, on cases received by and other social workers, indiciate that government cost cuts has resulted in many workers being turned away and asked to arrange for tickets on their own.

This has also been reported by ailing migrant workers, abandoned by their sponsors, stranded at the Hamad Medical Corporation – the general hospital – as the ‘police’ are unable to provide tickets for repatriation.

Further, there is a lack of information on due processes to be followed in case of labor and/or human rights violation. [tweetable]This drives workers to make ill-informed choices that only further worsens their plight[/tweetable]. This is a key role that civil society organisations and legal aid play in any open and just society. A role that has no room in Qatar.

Qatar is fearsome of allowing any civil society activity. It uses geopolitics, national security and population imbalance as excuses. This means you can do limited social work under as a diaspora association, or work independently and expose yourself to persecution.

Allowing independent non-governmental organisations to work in this space would also ensure better reporting and record-keeping of cases. [tweetable]A thorough record of abuse and exploitation is integral to understanding the problems faced by migrant workers[/tweetable]. For this, Qatar has to be brave enough to face up to its problems, and not merely react to accusations from outside.

Without a proper network of CSOs or NGOs, the government mechanisms are overwhelmed and under-equipped to handle the problems of its diverse population. It has deliberately stymied all civil society activities. By not allowing the community to freely play its part in assuring an equitable society, Qatar has only made it more difficult to manage the problems that arise from its migrants-centric labor market.