Migrant workers in Qatar’s hospitality sector say they are facing underpayment, shoddy accommodation and costly recruitment fees, according to new research.
During the long buildup to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, human rights defenders and journalists have brought international attention to the issue of forced labour, abuse and deaths among migrant workers building the infrastructure for the tournament.
However, less is known about the lives of workers in the country’s hotels, having received comparatively little attention.
But a new study from Gulf Labour Markets and Migration published earlier in July, takes a detailed look at the experiences of working in the Qatari hospitality industry through the eyes of migrant workers.
GLMM sat down with 88 migrant workers in Qatar over the summer of 2018, 64 of them in hospitality (hotels, restaurants, cleaning and taxis) and 24 in the construction sector to hear in detail about their views on life and work in the Gulf country.
Researchers interviewed workers from India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda – nationalities which account for the bulk of low-skilled labour in Qatar.
Too much work, not enough pay
Some 62% of the workers interviewed said that they found their workload too heavy relative to their pay. Many try to compensate for low wages by putting in overtime, only to discover that overtime wages were often withheld.In the words of male hospitality worker: “We just get our basic salary in the bank. There is no overtime from past 10 years.”
For many, the problems start well before they arrive in Qatar, with 68% of males and 66% of females saying that they were charged unofficial fees in their home country for securing a job.
Contract substitution – the practice of changing the terms of employment like pay, hours, and working conditions, from what migrants agreed to when they accepted the offer – is also rampant, according to the report.
Some workers also reported that they were not able to send home as much money as they had hoped due to the high cost of living in Qatar:
“If someone is a driver, he needs ironed clothes, shoes need to be polished, he needs everything fresh, have to get a haircut once a week. It costs 10 riyals for a haircut so my 50 riyals just goes in that. How much can I save in 1,000 riyals?” said one hospitality worker from India.
Another hospitality worker said that she had only been able to send money home once during the eight months that she had been working in Qatar.
Workers also expressed discontent with the lodging that was provided by their employers, reporting an inadequate number of bathrooms and cramped conditions.
“They are just making 8, 9, 10 persons live in the same room even though the capacity of the room is 4 or 5 persons but they are adding more people; when we are going on duty, we are just having trouble for toilet, like 25 people are using one toilet,” a mid-skilled hospitality worker reported.
Migrant workers interviewed in the study were keen to engage on the issue of whether their expectations of working in Qatar had been met or not. Some 43% said that if they had full facts about the reality of life and work in Qatar, they still would make the decision to migrate, while 33% had no preference and 15% said they would have stayed home.
“... 8, 9, 10 persons live in the same room even though the capacity of the room is 4 or 5 persons but they are adding more people [...] like 25 people are using one toilet.”
Workers generally had a positive opinion of Qatar as a country and many rated it highly in terms of safety and security.
“Qatar is a Muslim country [...] I am from India so we are very open, but you can’t go around there like this. Here we respect the rules and regulations. If we do that people will give us respect. That’s why Qatar is really good,” said an Indian female cleaner.
But one Kenyan hotel worker reported that she experienced racism on the job.
“There is another thing in my company which makes me feel like…hmm…it makes me feel down. It’s racism because the people who work with me, at times they give you attitude because you are black you know” she said.
For many workers, their biggest factor influencing their overall impression of Qatar was the company they work for:
“I will tell (my friend) first see how the company is, who will be hiring you. Some companies pay well and (provide) good facilities but some don’t pay. So, it’s necessary that before coming to Qatar, you find out what the company will pay you,” an Indian cleaner said.
There is a “paradox” in migrant workers’ feelings towards Qatar, according to the study: many expressed deep frustration with living conditions in the country, while at the same time acknowledging its many attractive qualities.
So what can be done to improve the situation? Migrant workers said they wanted better living conditions with more government inspections, salary increases to reflect experience, and proper overtime pay.
Stakeholders weigh in
The study also took into account the views of stakeholders including human resource departments of companies in Qatar and representatives in countries of origin. Most stakeholders were eager to point out that their comments were aimed at helping Qatar to improve, and some praised the Qatari Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (MADSLA) for initiatives to support migrant workers, including a 24hr WhatsApp hotline.
But they also wanted to see Qatar doing more to bring in legislation to ensure proper redress for migrant workers and to have more effective sanctions on employers and recruiters who flout labour laws.
Migrant workers’ concerns about low pay, unpaid overtime, and late payment were also echoed by stakeholders.
They also pointed out that larger companies in Qatar were likely to do a better job of sticking to rules and regulations than smaller ones, and a number suggested that the government should carry out checks on companies before they are even allowed to hire migrant workers in the first place.
Suggestions from stakeholders for improving the situation include blacklisting companies who mistreat workers, and more pressure on companies to pay costs associated with migration such as flights and healthcare rather than simply displacing them onto workers.