Academic: Rare bus driver strike could have ripple effect in Qatar

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An ongoing bus driver strike in Qatar is calling attention to unfair labor practices in the country and is being closely watched by those keen to protect worker rights.

The strike began on Sunday afternoon, when drivers at three private schools here – the Cambridge School of Doha, Cambridge International School for Girls and Doha Modern Indian School (DMIS), all under the Al Taleb Group – refused to transport thousands of children from school to their homes.

Speaking to local newspapers, bus drivers said they were striking for better pay and treatment. According to a transportation official at DMIS, Asian drivers are paid significantly less than their Arab counterparts – though all make QR1,200 to QR2,800 a month.

Over the past few days, the strike has left schools and parents scrambling to arrange transportation for their children. The drivers are contracted under Al Watan International Trading & Contracting Co, a subsidiary of Al Taleb Group, and remained on strike today.

Their employer has reportedly filed a police report against them.

Such civic action is rare in Qatar, where expats are prohibited from forming trade unions. According to Amnesty International:

Under the Labour Law (Article 116) only Qatari workers are allowed to form workers’ associations or trade unions.

Qatar has an obligation under Article 5 (e) (i) of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to which it is a state party, to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, in the enjoyment of ‘the right to form and join trade unions.’ “

Qatar’s Labor Ministry has said it is setting up a committee to study the issue of establishing such groups, as international pressure on Qatar to improve its workers’ rights record increases in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup. But progress remains slow.

Silvia Pessoa, an associate teaching professor of English and Sociolinguistics at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, who has tracked labor issues here since 2007, said she has not heard of strikes happening since 2006. 

This latest development may be a sign that Qatar is moving in a new direction, she added:

“It shows that workers are not scared, that they can practice strikes and do things that normal workers do in other countries.”

Still, she acknowledged that things may not end well for the bus drivers:

“The workers really took a risk by doing this. It’s likely they’re going to be fired or be deported, but maybe it will serve as a basis for the struggle of other workers. It might have a positive impact for the future of the laws of the country.”

Meanwhile, the International Trade Union Confederation, which is closely watching labor developments in Qatar and has previously called for a boycott on the country’s World Cup over employee abuses, has weighed in on the strike.

In a statement to Doha News, Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, said:

“These workers seem to be victims of discrimination, with no rights and low pay. Qatar urgently needs to legalise unions, so workers can sort problems out with their employers. We will call on the Government of Qatar to protect these workers and ensure their employer gives them a fair deal.”

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo for illustrative purposes only by Rosa Say

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