Expert: Meager food allowances leaving Qatar workers hungry

Ramadan 2015 Charity Iftar

Chantelle D'mello

Ramadan 2015 Charity Iftar

Too many blue-collar expats are working on construction sites with empty stomachs – a problem that can be solved if employers replaced food allowances with actual meals, an expert on Qatar’s migrant workforce has said.

Rajai Ray Jureidini, a professor of migration, human rights and ethics at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies’ (QFIS) Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics, made the suggestion during a public lecture on migrant labor earlier this week.

He argued that the QR200-QR300 monthly food allowance the average low-income expat receives is barely sufficient, given Qatar’s high cost of living.

Adding to the problem is that many blue-collar workers are under pressure to send money home to support their families and pay off debts, leaving them less money to pay for food.

Also, workers have long shifts as it is, so cooking their own food becomes an added chore that takes away from the time they have to unwind, sleep or socialize, Jureidini said.

Zaiqa restaurant

Chantelle D'mello

Zaiqa restaurant

Recognizing that some low-income workers are going hungry, several individuals and businesses have offered free food to those in need.

That includes Indian restaurant Zaiqa, whose proprietors spoke to Doha News last year at its former Industrial Area location. Co-owner Shadab Khan said he began offering penniless workers free food after one customer said he couldn’t afford to pay his bill:

“We gave him the meal free of charge. My brother then realized that there are probably more people who are in the same situation – people who don’t have money but are too shy to admit it, and are hungry.”

Some organizations – such as the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is overseeing construction of the stadiums and training facilities for the 2022 World Cup – already cater mid-shift meals for workers on building sites.

Construction workers eat at Khalifa Stadium

Peter Kovessy / Doha News

Khalifa Stadium mess hall

Jureidini, who previously worked as a consultant for Qatar Foundation’s migrant workers welfare initiative, suggested such initiatives be expanded.

Smaller companies that can’t afford on-site cafeterias can hire catering companies to deliver meals to labor camps, he added.

“Employers must provide food,” he told the audience at the QFIS building in Education City, adding that the cuisine should be nutritious and “culturally appropriate.”

Kafala history

In a wide-ranging talk, Jureidini also touched on the origins of the kafala sponsorship system in the Gulf and its inherent problems and proposed several reforms.

The system – changes to which are scheduled to come into effect in December – is frequently criticized by human rights advocates for the control it gives sponsors over their employees. Expats need permission to open a bank account, change jobs, leave the country and a host of day-to-day activities.

More than a dozen men wait to use the ATMs at City Center Mall.

Shabina S. Khatri

More than a dozen men wait to use the ATMs at City Center Mall.

However, it was initially established as a way to extend care and take responsibility for newcomers in a foreign country, Jureidini said.

But now it’s evolved into a way for Gulf citizens to “control and manage” the large number of foreigners living in their country, he added. In Qatar, expats outnumber nationals by approximately 9:1.

Jureidini argued that restrictions on expats changing sponsors also limits competition between nationals, forcing them to look abroad for labor rather than hiring away expats already working in Qatar.

Reforms

During his talk, Jureidini repeated several recommendations that labor rights advocates have made over the years.

The most important measure, he said, is to reform the recruitment process so that companies in Qatar, rather than workers themselves, pay fees to overseas agencies.

Jureidini also called for:

  • A national minimum wage;
  • Extending Qatar’s labor law to include domestic workers; and
  • More prosecutions of companies that mistreat employees;

Qataris may have deep-seated concerns about being a minority in their own country, but Jureidini said legislative reforms must still be pushed through:

“Most people know the right thing to do. The rest have to be forced to through the implementation of the law.”

Thoughts?

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