When Peter, William, James and Emmanuel* came to Qatar from Kenya in July 2022, they did not expect that seven months later they would be homeless, with no income, no passport, and no support system.
The four Kenyans were recruited to work for Wafiq Limousine, a new company providing dispatch riders for food delivery services Rafeeq and Snoonu. Their experience is among a slew of similar cases in which dispatch riders and gig economy workers have been cheated and left stranded by employers.
“I knew my dreams would come true when I came here. But the first day was the day my hope died,” the 29-year-old recalls. Upon arriving at their accommodation near Khaled Bin Zayed St, around Madinat Khalifa, Peter and his three colleagues realised they would be sleeping in one overcrowded room with 12 other men, with scarcely any space to breathe. The cramped living conditions were just the beginning of disappointments and broken promises.
Favorcom Recruitment Agency Ltd, based in Nairobi, had promised Peter a salary of QR 2500 (US$690), which included a food stipend and accommodation in addition to the basic salary. He hoped that the salary would allow him to pay back the QR6000 (US$1650) loan he took to pay for recruitment fees, and to support his mother and sister back home.
However, the contract the men signed when they arrived in Doha totalled only QR1300 (US$400), comprising a basic salary of QR1000 and a QR300 food allowance, with accommodation provided. The manager also informed them that they would work as motorcycle delivery riders for Rafeeq, instead of car drivers. Though the contracted terms are in line with Qatar's minimum wage, they were far below what the men had been promised.
Contract substitution is rife especially in countries where the Qatar Visa Centres (QVCs) are not yet operational. QVCs help streamline the visa application process and require that the electronic contract signed at origin is the same one submitted at destination. Even though Qatar recruits thousands of Kenyans every year, it still does not have QVCs in Kenya.
Despite the difference in employment terms, the men had little choice but to stay on given the steep fees they had paid to migrate.
“We had no option. We needed a lot of money. I personally had a loan to pay back home. I was already here, so I stayed, so I could use that amount to pay off my loan. Many people back home are longing for this chance…so even if it is just that QR1000 I decided to just work for it,” Peter recalls.
By the third week of employment, their passports were confiscated. Though passport confiscation is illegal under Qatar’s labour law, enforcement and penalties remain weak.
Contract substitution and wage theft
The web of sponsorship and subcontracting is particularly convoluted in the gig sectors, making it easier for the sponsors and employers to shirk contractual responsibility. In this case, while the three are sponsored by Wafiq (as per their QIDs and contracts), William is sponsored by Fowri for delivery services. Their supervisor – whom they refer to as boss and say is a partner in the company – is Mohammed W. As per documents reviewed by Migrant-Rights.Org, he is listed as the authorised signatory on Fowri’s establishment and has signed the contract for those sponsored by Wafiq. His own QID indicates his sponsor is Noor Al Shams for Limousine Service.
The workers say Wafiq Limousine launched operations in May 2022 with 20 delivery riders who were recruited around the same time. Six of the workers were from Uganda and Kenya, including Peter and his colleagues. The remaining 14 were South Asians.
During their first month in Doha, Mohammed W, a Bangladeshi national and a partner in the company, paid them their basic salary but only provided QR200 for their food stipend instead of the QR300 contracted. In the next five months, they were neither paid their salaries nor their food allowance. The QR1200 they received in the first month are the only wages that Peter and his friends have received in the past seven months, even though they were working 12-16 hours a day.
During this time, they relied on tips to survive.
“When we asked him for our salary, he kept telling us to wait and be patient, and we didn’t know what else to do. Where was the money we were working for going?”
In total, the company currently owes Peter, William, and Emmanuel QR7800 each (US$2140 approximately, including food stipends), while James is owed QR6500 (US$1785).
Except for James, who received his salary card in November and was paid through that in December, none of the others were registered in the Wage Protection System and have no salary cards or bank accounts. They received their first month’s salaries in cash, which is illegal. According to Qatar’s labour Laws, salaried workers who are hired on an annual or monthly basis must be paid their wages by direct deposit using electronic bank transfer.
Rampant wage theft across sectors is of growing concern in the GCC, including in Qatar. The Wage Protection System that is supposed to detect non-payment of wages and alert authorities, often fails its mandate.
Gig economy workers in particular work in a grey area and are particularly prone to exploitation by both their sponsor and their employer. A recent report by FairSquare details the experiences of 160 delivery workers in Qatar who were subjected to wage theft, with some going unpaid for as long as eight months. The men, who are mostly Ugandans, Ghanaians, and Kenyans, were employed by two related companies, Infinity Delivery Services, and Infinity Limousine Services, and work on behalf of various food delivery companies via subcontracting arrangements.
While access to justice and redress is a challenge for most lower-income migrant workers, those employed in the gig economy face even more hurdles. They not only work on commissions — making it harder for them to take time off to see through complaints — but they are often employed by someone who is not their sponsor. The opaque subcontracting process can make it difficult to identify who is responsible for their working conditions, and who they can even lodge a complaint against. Despite the increasing numbers of migrants being employed in the gig sector, GCC states have not introduced laws or policies to regulate these terms of work.
Risking life and limb
In most gig jobs, the employment relationship is unclear. In this case, Wafiq Limousine did not have a direct contract with Rafeeq, but supplied its drivers to another company, Bin Kassim delivery services. Bin Kassim had a contract with Rafeeq, and deployed Wafiq’s employees as riders. In mid-November, Wafiq Limousine was able to secure a direct contract with Snoonu, another popular food delivery company in Qatar.
After getting the new contract, the employer insisted that Peter and his friends dedicate eight hours each for Snoonu and Rafeeq, resulting at times, in 16-hour work days for days on end. Despite the overloaded work schedule, the men still did not receive their wages.
“I had never been to a country with a World Cup before. I was excited since I thought it would be an opportunity to make more money. We were getting more jobs and tips at the beginning of the World Cup and since I was not getting paid by my boss, I was sending some of that money to my mother back home,” Peter said. However, during the peak of the World Cup in late November, Peter had a serious road accident while delivering for Rafeeq in Umm Salal.
“I called my boss and told him I had an accident, and the first thing he asked me was how the bike was. I was hurt. I was bleeding and could barely walk but all he was worried about was his bike," Peter recalls, adding that his employer told him to keep working despite injuries and threatened to terminate his contract.
The ambulance and the police arrived at the scene a few minutes later and gave Peter first aid, but when he asked if he could be taken to the hospital for further examination, the paramedics discouraged him and told him he would have to pay because he didn't have a Hamad Health card. Contractually, Wafiq Limousine is obligated to provide a health card or insurance to its employees.
“The Pakistanis have health cards but we Africans have no insurance,” Peter said, adding that their boss looks down on them and mistreats them more because they are Kenyan.
The person who knocked Peter down promised the police that he would cover Peter’s medical expenses, but when Peter called him the next day, he never responded. Following this accident, Peter stayed in his room, with untreated injuries for days and no food. “A few days later, members of the church I go to came to visit me and raised a bit of money, which helped me get on my feet,” he said.
According to Qatar Labour Law No.14 of 2004, employers are responsible for covering the costs of treatments for workplace injuries. Employees who cannot continue to work as a result of work-related injuries should receive full salary during the first six months of treatment. After that, they should receive half pay until they are fully recovered or deemed permanently disabled. Despite this, Wafiq still pushed Peter to return to work before his injuries healed and refused to cover his medical treatment.
On 4 December 2022, Peter was involved in another minor accident while still recovering from injuries from the first incident.
“My boss told me I had to fix the bike, and I told him to use insurance since it wasn’t my responsibility. We disagreed. That same day, he cancelled my Qatar ID,” Peter recalls
After the cancellation of his ID, Peter, William, and Emanuel went to the Ministry of Labour’s office on 11 December and, for the first time, filed a complaint against their employer for wage theft and lack of medical insurance. The three were given a first hearing date on 15 December. However, their employer, who had been notified, did not show up. They were told to come back in a week with their boss. On 22 December, the three men went back to the labour office in the Industrial area with their employer. They were encouraged to reach a compromise with him, but they did not agree on anything.
James waited several more months, in vain, hoping the employer would pay his dues. He then expressed interest in finding another job so he could support his family, but the sponsor cancelled his QID. He then filed a complaint on 3 February 2023. but the employer did not show up for two subsequent hearings.
Following the multiple no-shows from the employer and failure to reach an agreement, the cases of all four workers have been transferred to the High Court. They are currently waiting for a court hearing date.
Retaliation and homelessness
An official at the labour office told them if they withdrew the case, the employer can ‘do anything to them’ and therefore, advised them to not withdraw. After the second hearing, the employer left them at the court, so they had to find their way back to their accommodation alone. He then retaliated by terminating their contracts, closing their phone lines, and preventing them from working. Moreover, he did not provide them with any money for food.
In January, Wafiq Limousine employees discovered that their boss had not been paying for their accommodation. The caretaker of the building in Madinat Khalifa where Peter and his colleagues lived repeatedly tried to force them out. In desperation, Peter and his friends approached the police station near Madinat Khalifa for assistance but were told to return to their accommodation and call the police if anything happened.
Such tactics are commonly used by employers to push workers to leave the country altogether, which would automatically withdraw their case. During the waiting period between filing a complaint and receiving a response, workers do not have enough legal protection to prevent retaliation. The power is firmly entrenched in the hands of the employer, who can cancel their ID anytime through the Metrash app or file an absconding case.
On 20 February, the situation took a turn for the worse when all the building residents, who worked for different companies, were evicted. The workers again approached the police for assistance, only to be asked, "Do you want to come live in the police station?" This left them with no option but to brave the elements and spend the night outside.
While those who worked for other companies were given alternative housing by their employers the next day, Peter and his compatriots were left to fend for themselves on the streets for almost a week, depending on the kindness of strangers to survive.
Peter recalls the week and said “[we were] living like cows outside.”
The night the workers were evicted from their accommodation
When they approached Wafiq and demanded that they at least be given shelter until their court date, the manager-slash-partner called the cops on them for harassment. Peter and his friends then went to the Al Khor police station with their employer to explain their situation in an attempt to resolve the case. After much negotiating, the police ordered the employer to provide the workers with accommodation until their court dates. The employer promised to do so, but he failed to keep his word and left the workers outside without any assistance, again.
As they await their court hearing, they are aware that if the employer fails to attend there are likely to be little to no repercussions. If the workers were to do the same, they would likely lose their case.
The Kenyan workers also approached their embassy for help, to no avail. They were told that if they had the money for tickets, the embassy would facilitate their repatriation. Eventually, they did consider this option, but without their documents or money, the process would be lengthy and tedious.
For now, they live on the support provided by elders of their church, which included a shared room in a villa with other workers. As they sit in the cramped room, a flimsy curtain providing the only privacy, the men despair that they are unable to support their families back home. James, for instance, has a 4-year-old daughter whose school fees he cannot pay, which is straining his relationship with his wife. Emmanuel and William face similar struggles as they also have children to support. Peter worries about being unable to pay off his debts and help his elderly mother.
And the court hearing in early May provides no assurance of a solution.
*Names changed to protect workers' identities
Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece mistated that the workers' high court hearing was set for May 3, 2023. A court date has not yet been set.