How Qatar Can Learn From Qatar Foundation
And How QF Should Walk The Talk
Why Qatar Foundation?
Good question. Allow me to explain.
Here's the thing, I work for a security company with a lot of contracts all over Qatar. One such contract is with Msheireb Properties (MP), where we provide security services within Msheireb Downtown Doha. You've probably heard of it. It's kind of a big deal. Sustainable city. Breathtaking architecture. Tram. Residential properties. Hotels. Restaurants. Coffee shops. Museums. Planned retail stores. Qatari heritage, with a touch of modern.
Msheireb Downtown Doha is the baby of Msheireb Properties. Msheireb Properties is a subsidiary of Qatar Foundation.
Our working and living experience so far has been in sharp contrast to what we had hoped for from such a prestigious entity. Driven by frustration, and desperation, I reached out to the Qatar Foundation (QF).
So, now you're probably asking, "Why go directly to QF? Aren't you aware of the chain of command? Escalation protocols?"
Another good question. Allow me to explain.
At the time our company got the Msheireb contract, in October 2019, a good number of us (hundreds) had essentially been out of work, seeing as how some contracts had not been renewed. We had been in this jobless state, a limbo of sorts, for close to six months. With NOCs out of the question, we couldn't look for alternative means of employment, so we became confined to the accommodation, relegated to a routine of slumber, and whatever passed for existence when we awoke.
The Wage Protection System should have notified the authorities when we were not paid in full, or when there were unfair deductions. But no one took cognisance of this then.
The most we got to do was cover for others in their respective locations whenever they were off, or on vacation. On some days we would be hauled off to horrendous hospitality events, as our company had a lot of hotel contracts. If you were lucky enough to get temporary duty, the irregularity of your workdays would negate that luck, as your pay would never reflect your activity. We don't have a payslip, so we don't know what criteria they use to pay. During these tricky times, even your basic salary plus food allowance, which was supposed to amount to QR950, wasn't guaranteed. Crying foul was the norm on payday, with people furious and distraught at the unexplainable deductions they had incurred, and at the imbalance of the wages received versus days worked.
The Wage Protection System should have notified the authorities when we were not paid in full, or when there were unfair deductions. But no one took cognisance of this then. Since joining the company, we have never received a payslip, only an SMS from the bank when our salary was deposited. Only then would we know the amount, and in case of any irregularities, our company's follow-up system was nothing if not inefficient.
This raged on for months, and soon, rumours of our company getting new contracts seemed to lift people's spirits, because that meant a permanent location and a steady income. One of these contracts was Msheireb Downtown Doha. "This is a very high-profile contract, sustainable city, technologically advanced, VVIP location..." our middle management marketed to us during the briefing. We were abuzz with excitement, mainly because we knew one thing: the client would surely move us out of the Industrial Area. No high-profile client would allow us to continue living here. Oh, how mistaken we were.
...Msheireb Properties came to inspect the arrangement. The camp officials came into our rooms [...] trying to make the room look presentable for the MP delegation. After a long day's work, we came back to this atrocity.
Our company management, somehow, managed to convince MP that we would be just fine where we were. They claimed they would set aside one block out of the seven within the camp, to house us exclusively. I can confirm that those were lies. Deceit. Falsehoods.
Of the four floors, we mainly occupied the first, second and third. The keyword is, mainly. And in these rooms, 4-something by 4-something metres, they packed six of us, in double tier beds along with our effects. Cramped is an understatement. Adding insult to injury, the ground floor rooms were occupied by guards under Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), working for the Qatar Rail project, and these lucky gentlemen were only three in a room, thanks to conditions set by MHI. They even had privacy curtains. Commendably, they were complying with Qatar's Worker Accommodation Regulations. Our high-profile client didn't get the memo.
So, in light of our predicament, I contended with the thought of speaking up. Well, not really the thought, but the method, rather. Not speaking up was NOT an option, I just had to be creative about it. What fortified my resolve was that a couple of days after we had begun working, someone or some people from Msheireb Properties came to inspect the arrangement. The camp officials came into our rooms while we were at work and moved things around, squeezed our personal belongings anywhere there was space, trying to make the room look presentable for the MP delegation. After a long day's work, we came back to this atrocity.
After snooping around MP's website, I see this Whistleblowing button. Clicked that. I read their declaration. Concluded I definitely was in the right place. I quickly set up a creative email address, if I do say so myself, and composed an email stating our grievances. I encountered an error when I tried to send the mail, and the dedicated telephone number wasn't going through either. So, I called customer service, asking more about their Whistleblowing policy, and I swear the guy who responded had no idea what that was. He directed me to just send my concerns the normal way, through [email protected] Okay. Wow... I did that anyway. And waited. And waited some more. After six days, I knew my wait was in vain, so I decided to look for another way.
I'm not exactly sure how I knew MP was a subsidiary of QF. I most likely read it somewhere. Anyway, I've known QF to be an exceptional institution, with its vision and values, so I felt hopeful as I visited their website and found what I was looking for: the Whistleblowing section. After reading the policy, and feeling somewhat reassured, I copy-pasted the grievance email, added that I had tried to contact MP without success, and hoped that my email reached someone, anyone who could come through for us.
I exhaled as I hit 'Send.'
How Did They Respond?
The response came the following day. A certain guy introduced himself to me and told me what he does for QF. He then asked me to confirm our company name and place of work, which I did. He thanked me for sharing the details, said they (QF) would look into the matter and would contact me if any more information would be needed.
"Hmmm, that went well..." I thought to myself, as I envisioned a convoy of QF and Ministry officials pulling up to our accommodation, to liberate us from the clutch of our company's unscrupulous dealings. (I have an active imagination.)
After two days and no convoy, unfortunately, I emailed him inquiring about any progress on the matter. He responded, "The issue has already been escalated to the higher management of QF and MP who will deal seriously on this matter." A reassuring email, that.
I waited for the fireworks. And waited. And waited some more. After 11 days, I emailed, notifying him that the situation hadn't changed. There was also an issue with the cafeteria – food quality and tyranny chief among them, as the cafeteria enjoyed a monopoly within our camp. A litany of issues came with that, which I articulated. He was sorry to hear that and asked me to be patient and wait for action to be taken by the higher management of QF and MP. But he didn't leave me empty-handed this time. He shared with me a screengrab of correspondence between an MP Health and Safety official and a QF executive. The email basically said the Health and Safety department audited our accommodation and issued the audit report requiring our company to "take proper corrective actions to avoid such unacceptable violations now and in future." The deadline given was one week.
Qatar Foundation pretty much got everything right [...] I felt like I mattered. The thought that someone was following up on our issue was comforting. That being said, I believe there was too much bureaucracy involved [...] From the day I reported the matter in January, we are still living in the same conditions.
That was great news. Freedom was imminent. I was on edge the whole week, just waiting to see any changes. But I didn't, and after seven days, I emailed again. This time, he wanted to meet me at work, to talk further. I wasn't entirely opposed to the idea until he requested my number. Nothing wrong with that. Probably standard. But I didn't want to have my identity revealed, which he assured me he would not. Out of panic, I even asked if he could secure a job for me at QF, in case my extracurricular activities blew up in my face. He obviously couldn't do that, and things got awkward from there, as I wanted to speak up but also wanted to protect myself. Part of me thinks that was selfish; to ask such a thing. To say I want to fight for our welfare, but wanting to cover my ass first.
These are the things I thought about that night before I slept, and in the morning, I sent him my number. But there was no response. No call. No email. That day. Or the next. Or the one after. And I pretty much gave up.
And so here we are.
What MADLSA Can Learn From Qatar Foundation
Qatar Foundation pretty much got everything right. Right from acknowledging my anonymous email, and my concerns, even though I wasn't a direct employee of QF or MP. But I felt like I mattered. The thought that someone was following up on our issue was comforting. That being said, I believe there was too much bureaucracy involved. It's also possible that I don't fully understand how employee welfare policies work and how lengthy they can be. From the day I reported the matter in January, we are still living in the same conditions, with attempts to reach QF only yielding the usual, "The issue has been escalated to higher management." or, "Your concern has been routed to the rightful and concerned party" or "QF is still in the process of communicating with MP."
Also, during all that correspondence, no one from QF or MP visited the Industrial Area accommodation. And currently, despite sending them the precise location of the villa we were shifted to during the lockdown, right down to the individual house numbers, no one has shown up or even made a follow-up call regarding our living arrangement.
The Ministry of Labour can learn a few things from QF, but I'll mention just three.
One, and probably the most important, is facilitating an anonymous platform where an employee "can transparently and confidentially raise concerns ...without fear of suffering retribution." Self-preservation trumps the resolve to speak up. People don't want to lose their jobs. Or get deported. Or prosecuted. Or the inconvenience all of that brings. So they remain silent and endure that which they need not, should not. Anonymity does away with inhibitions and enables the employee to share as much information as is needed to resolve a matter.
Two, having received the anonymous email, the Ministry should have qualified personnel to address these concerns, in a timely manner. You have no idea that the person on the other end of the screen is literally counting on you for a solution. For migrant workers to know that the government cares about them and will respond to their grievances accomplishes three things I can think of: it boosts their morale, keeps employers in check and solidifies Qatar's image as a model country for migrant workers rights.
Three, a better website wouldn't hurt.
Qatar is already a trendsetter in many areas. Investments, internal security, academia, sports, research, infrastructure, cultural diversity et cetera.
Why not human rights?
(The experiences and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author. Migrant-Rights.org has reviewed proof of communications mentioned by the author.)