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Minimum wage, maximum adjustment

Workers in Qatar reflect on whether the new minimum wage is a living wage

On October 25, 2020

On 30 August 2020, Qatar announced two reforms to its labour law and kafala system. One of them was the dismantling of the infamous NOC (No Objection Certificate). Basically, a document from your current employer giving you permission to change jobs. This announcement was so monumental that I didn't believe it. 

Partly because of past and present documentation of abuses and an inexplicable reluctance to implement actual change and partly because I heard the announcement from a friend – I attributed it to rumours and wishful thinking among already trodden and weary souls. 

The other announcement was the non-discriminatory minimum wage (coming into effect in March 2021) which is what I'll be delving into. The minimum wage is set at QR1000 (USD275) basic wage, with an additional QR300 (USD55) food allowance if your company doesn't provide food, and a QR500 (USD137) allowance if your company doesn't provide accommodation.

I think that as a measure and a show of commitment, it's okay-ish. But practically, it makes no difference to a good majority of workers who already earn QR1000 and upwards. It is, however, a very good measure for others who are more prone to wage theft and abuse like domestic workers, fishermen, small grocery store and cafeteria employees, cleaners, helpers, etc.

For many nationalities, because of the bilateral agreement between governments, the minimum wage is already far higher than what has been announced now.

Right off the bat, lots of things are wrong with these numbers. Basic wage is low, though Qatar’s is higher than Kuwait's, the only other country with a minimum wage in the GCC. The UAE, although lacking an official minimum wage, has higher salaries for pretty much the same jobs

Food allowance of QR300, also low, unless you manage the time to hunt for supermarket offers and watch every riyal (and expiry dates). As a result of the blockade brought about by the 2017 Gulf crisis, food prices are higher, and that amount is just not enough to sustain a nutritious diet. This is also factoring in that you have a refrigerator, because QR300 food allowance, without refrigeration, means cooking from scratch every time. Let's not even go there...

" will (might) make the most impact on maids and cleaners. I know of one cleaner from Bangladesh, subcontracted by Qatar Rail, who earned QR800 (USD220)."

And finally, QR500 for housing? In Qatar?

Here's what my colleagues and peers had to say. 

"It makes no difference. That is what we are already earning. And most workers earn QR1000 and above anyway, so... yeah, no difference at all," says Robert*, a security guard from Uganda. "However, it will (might) make the most impact on maids and cleaners. I know of one cleaner from Bangladesh, subcontracted by Qatar Rail, who earned QR800 (USD220)." 

I've heard and read about such shocking things before. Gets me every time. As was evident in my facial expression, which prompted him to repeat, "Yes, you heard that right. QR800."

I ask about the food allowance. "Not sufficient. At all," he responds. "Especially since it's not accompanied by other supplies like gas and refrigeration. You need at least QR500 to be able to nourish yourself here." He also fears that companies will make catering services mandatory, which would be a lot cheaper than giving employees the QR300 food allowance AND providing cooking gas, fridges and the logistics of meeting quality and safety standards for the kitchen. His company currently gives him QR200 food allowance, but he is required to pay QR240 (basic package) for what passes for food at the camp cafeteria.

"For the housing allowance, the most it can get you is bed space outside of company accommodations, which essentially is the same thing, just elsewhere. Redundant is what that allowance is."

Joshua, also from Uganda says, "It's a good step but..." A thoughtful pause. "... a good step, but it's still extremely low. Due to the economic impact from the blockade, incomes of workers have been shattered by the price increase of items we need for survival. To the extent that the labourer has nothing left to save. This (minimum wage) is far below expected." 

"No, it's not enough. Life here in Qatar is expensive," says Luna from Kenya, who has worked here for about five years. Two of those, she worked in a household where she earned QR900 per month. She didn't even receive any payment for the first three months as she was on 'probation'. Also, within this period, the agency she used wanted her to pay a QR1000 recruitment fee but her employer told her everything was paid for, to which she cut off all communication with the agency. After she completed her first stint, she went against the grain and obtained a 'free visa', which she says gave her more bargaining power over wages whilst freelancing for domestic work.

"It's a good effort though, shows that someone cares about the workers, but with all expenses factored in, a minimum wage of at least QR2000 would be more practical. Food and housing are quite expensive and the allowance given won’t cover it." A mum to a ten-year-old, she wishes she could be able to have her son over.

But does this really mean an end to the exploitation of domestic workers? "First of all, it's on them if they tolerate such, and other abuses. Some don't know the [labour] law and therefore, can't speak up with confidence when these things happen." However, not all workers have the knowledge, language or the courage to speak up and risk losing their job. Luna, who did risk standing up to her previous employer, sees herself staying in Qatar for another five years, or more. She isn’t in a hurry to leave just yet, as there are no opportunities back home.

"They [government] have means of following up on other things (like visa and QID validity) and they even know the amounts people remit back home? Unless the government follows through with a serious commitment, workers will still be taken advantage of by employers."

From paper to practice

Government enforcement, or lack thereof, is another thing Joshua decries. Especially with regards to employee welfare and wages. "Before this announcement, the minimum wage was QR750, but how many people were able to get even that amount? Companies have been paying well below that amount and there's nothing Qatar has done about it. They know what's going on. They have means of following up on other things (like visa and QID validity) and they even know the amounts people remit back home? Unless the government follows through with a serious commitment, workers will still be taken advantage of by employers," says the father of five boys, back in Uganda. The eldest in secondary school, requiring QR1000 per term. Three in primary school, requiring QR700 per term, and the youngest in the nursery. On average, each person working in Qatar is supporting between five and eight people back home – spouse, children, parents. The minimum wage is not considered a living wage for Qatar, but it doesn’t quite cover all the expenses ‘back home’ and allow for savings – which is the main intention behind migration for most.

He goes on to say that accommodations are "packed" and government inspections are laughably inefficient. How efficient do you expect them to be when the inspectors give prior notification before coming? This gives the company ample time to tidy up, sweep things under the rug, and set up a façade for the approval of said "inspectors". 

Surprise. Inspections – for how long and how loudly must this be chanted?  You have to surprise these companies, catch them off guard. Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and police know what's up. They respond to various emergencies and situations in these labour camps all the time. That being said, somehow, they remain indifferent to these cramped, bedbug-infested, unsanitary, hazardous and indecent conditions. EMTs? I can understand. But police?  

"If changing jobs were easier and swifter, employers would honour the payment of wages, provide better accommodation; better living conditions in general. That competition would set it up so that those who can retain employees are those who pay well and uphold employee welfare." The removal of NOC may eventually lead to this. 

Ram, from Nepal, used to work in fashion retail before Covid-19 rendered him jobless. He says, "It's a great effort from the government, however, the implementation process and its effectiveness is yet to be seen. This isn't the first time such changes, and laws have been passed. Implementation has never been effective. The lower-income migrants, the most fragile, will benefit the most from this. However, the Wage Protection System, close monitoring, and significant penalties for violators will be required to make this new law effective."

Tanveer, also from Nepal, is lucky to still be working. "I believe this law will substitute the traditional discriminatory, unequal, nationality-based wage system, and this will be great for the employees, ensuring equal pay to workers from different nationalities. However, there might be higher chances of migrant workers being exploited through deception in the recruitment process in the country of origin as recruitment agencies now have bargaining power and can make false promises to aspiring migrants, charge exorbitant fees, especially if the employers aren't ethical, responsible and accountable." That being said, "This (minimum wage) is not enough! It should be based on the cost of living in the destination country. So, I think it should be (something like) QR2500 (USD687)."

"Peanuts." That's the first thing that comes to Simon's mind when I ask him about the changes to the minimum wage. A security guard from Kenya, toiling in Msheireb Downtown Doha, a slave to the elements for the better part of 12 hours a day. He earns QR1250 (USD340). Paid a recruitment agent QR4400 (USD1200) to get the job, and spent a further QR1100 on related expenses. "There's no difference for us (security guards). What they should have done is stipulate the specifics, like working hours, working conditions... things like that. When you take away the food and housing allowance, compensation for the work we do isn't considered at all. We work so hard. Long commutes, long hours on-site, sweating like crazy with this heat, stress, fatigue... we don't even eat properly."

"Food prices are higher because of the blockade, and now corona. And although cooking for yourself requires at least QR400/500, this is a far better option than the food provided by the company. Stomach upsets are the norm, and people have even been hospitalised because of this food."

"But surely, they say it's the highest minimum wage in the GCC, higher than Kuwait, the only other country with a minimum wage," I taunt. "Salaries are higher in the UAE – and they don't need the World Cup to do that. Qatar is only doing this because of the Cup. Just imagine if it wasn't for the World Cup, how much worse would things be here?" he asks. 

"QR300 for food isn't enough. Food prices are higher because of the blockade, and now corona. And although cooking for yourself requires at least QR400/500, this is a far better option than the food provided by the company. Stomach upsets are the norm, and people have even been hospitalised because of this food. I also spend extra on mineral water, because the drinking water provided is not safe, to be honest. Have you seen how dirty the filters are?" To which I agree. Emphatically. 

I then ask about the housing allowance. "Well, for starters there's more privacy in living independently; outside of the accommodation..." I suspect he doesn't really know what rental properties go for in this state. I recount to him that one time I got offered a job with a certain media company back in 2019. Said company was offering me a starting salary of QR6,000 (hurts just thinking about it), and hopeful-me was already looking at a couple of places I could move into, away from the crowded 8-person room I was staying in at the time. At the time a studio/1 bedroom house, pretty basic, nothing fancy, would have cost me around QR2000 per month. A more recent hunt for a place to call home reveals an average of QR750 for a 'fully furnished' bed space – shared accommodation relatively better than labour camps, though devoid of privacy all the same. 

"Oh. Haha. Then that allowance is impossible. You haven't even factored in water and electricity bills, transport..." he says, in light of this new information. 

What’s left to save?

I then ask about remittances, after personal expenditure. "I wish there was a way to have remittance charges tailored to your income. It's not fair paying the same fee to send QR1,000 or less as someone sending QR5,000. Especially when the rate is low. The fees should be tailored for workers. Also, the money exchanges are very far from our camp, so we spend money on transport every time." 

But why not use public transport? Some of you might ask. With this mode of transportation (Karwa buses), you sacrifice time for money. A 10-minute taxi trip easily turns to half an hour on the road. Not so big on efficiency. 10/10 wouldn't recommend it unless time isn't a concern for you. The Metro would be perfect for such errands in these parts, but for reasons obvious to Qatar, the Industrial Area didn't get train stations.

"Just to clarify, I'm very thankful for the opportunity to work and earn some money here, because back home there are no opportunities. That being said, Qatar has this take-it or go-back-home policy on migrant workers. No one cares about us because we are temporary and replaceable," says the father of a two-year-old daughter. Way too smart for her age, he proudly adds. She is his motivation; his reason for not giving in to the hopelessness of working in Qatar. Her upkeep, and that of his wife, plus savings to put her (his daughter) through school are his first priority whenever he gets paid. He allocates however much he can, oftentimes relegating his own personal expenses, and ambitions, to the back seat. The question of savings doesn’t even arise.

Belle, a domestic worker from the Philippines, a community leader and an admin for a DW Facebook group says, “It makes no difference really. There are domestic workers already earning that amount. I even know some who earn QR2000 (USD550). Not sure how they (government) will implement it for those already here. Maybe it may work for those coming to Qatar under the new contracts.” 

One employer of a Filipina domestic worker even said, “We pay her QR2000 a month and she says it's not enough. So you can imagine what she thinks of QR1000. Maybe she will laugh and think it's a joke.” How about that? An employer who acknowledges the hilarity of the ‘significant changes to the minimum wage’

Ruth, a domestic worker from Kenya, says, “This amount, personally, I think it's not enough, because if you do your own research, about 80% of domestic workers are single mothers and they have left their children under their parents' care. If parents are not in the picture, then that responsibility falls on their siblings, and as such one is obligated to take care of every need in that household. Their thinking is, ‘We are taking care of your children, so you should take care of us too. After all, you have gone to look for greener pastures…”

“They don't know the challenges people face here, low wages being a major one,” she pauses. “QR1000? For real? Things are changing, day in day out. Prices of commodities are going up. It’s very difficult to survive with QR1000, especially when you think about the responsibilities awaiting you back home. It’s totally inadequate. They should have made it at least QR1500. Picture this: a domestic worker has travelled all this way to find work and better her life, she then has to save, cater for the needs of her children, the whole household back home, and she has her own personal needs and expenses, and at the end of the day…” she sighs, her silence speaks volumes.

“If we were to sit down, and you tell me to bring you ladies who ran away, the stories you’d hear all revolve around how inadequate their wages were, especially when you consider children’s school fees, upkeep, relatives etc.”


*All names changed to protect identity of interviewees