Qatar answers call for better worker housing with new ‘Labor City’
A new “city” that is expected to house up to 100,000 blue-collar workers in Qatar’s Industrial Area has begun accepting tenants, and was inaugurated this week by officials who hope it will serve as model for laborer accommodation in the country.
The 55-building Labor City has recreational facilities, green spaces and a medical clinic, as well as WiFi access and outdoor telephone booths. It was built to reflect a “keenness (for) the welfare of all segments of society,” the government said in a statement on QNA.
Surrounded by high walls and blanketed with CCTV cameras, Labor City is located across the street from Mowasalat’s headquarters near the Religious Complex.
It is the second phase of a 272-acre development that includes a cricket pitch, cinema and retail plaza that opened to the public in 2013 and was renamed from West End Park to Asian Town earlier this year.
The construction of Labor City was overseen by Qatar’s Private Engineering Office (PEO), a government agency that manages high-profile development projects.
A spokesperson declined to be interviewed, but referred Doha News to a video outlining the project:
“This project is a model for other similar projects in the future as part of the state of Qatar’s vision, and its self-conviction to meet the daily needs of workers in order to create a healthy and consistent living environment,” the PEO said in its video.
Labor City’s cleanliness and open spaces stand in stark contrast to the dirty and overcrowded housing areas documented by journalists and rights groups that have visited Qatar in recent years, and are scrutinizing the country ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
Human rights advocates say any efforts by the government to improve the living conditions of blue-collar workers are welcome.
However, some cautioned that labor housing woes are merely a symptom of a restrictive sponsorship system that makes it difficult for expats to change jobs, leave the country or seek legal redress if they’re mistreated by their employers.
Speaking to Doha News, Nick McGeehan, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said this week:
“Housing is something that’s very visual and allows people to grasp quickly that this is a big problem. But when you talk to workers about their top concerns, housing is never at top of the list … it’s unpaid wages, exit permits” and sponsorship-related disputes.
McGeehan added that he fears Qatar officials may be following the lead of other governments in the region in assuming that a lack of squalid labor camps to photograph would lead to less media criticism of the country’s human rights record.
Inside Labor City
It remains unclear which companies will tie up with Labor City to house their employees there, but the development complies with the housing requirements of Qatar Foundation and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is overseeing the construction of the country’s World Cup stadiums and training facilities.
Both organizations have minimum worker welfare standards that dictate recruitment policies, payment terms, overtime provisions as well as accommodation requirements for contractors and subcontractors that go beyond what’s legally required.
To access the new development, residents must pass through one of nine tall metal gates staffed by security guards.
Inside, the streets and beige three-story residential buildings – each of which is supposed to contain a kitchen, dining hall and two security rooms – of Labor City are laid out in a grid pattern.
During a visit to the camp earlier this week, when many residents were at work, the streets were observed to be largely empty and many of the buildings appeared vacant.
Several dozen men were gathered on and around the largest grass field. While some were stretched out on the ground, others were kicking a football around a circle or setting up plastic cones for what appeared to be a training session.
One man, who spoke briefly to Doha News while waiting for a bus to take him to his job at a gas company, said he was happy with his accommodation. He added that he shared a room with three other men, each of whom had their own bed.
Human rights activists said they welcome in principle efforts by the Qatar government to build appropriate housing for the country’s growing low-income expat population, but said they still have some questions.
One of their main concerns is the camp’s strong security presence.
Security guards and visitor sign-in policies are common in many middle and high-income apartments in Qatar.
But especially in cases such as Labor City, such surveillance measures make it harder for human rights workers to visit employee accommodation and speak to expats, said Mustafa Qadri, a researcher with Amnesty International.
“It’s difficult enough as it is,” he told Doha News. “That environment will lead to more challenges in investigating conditions and speaking to workers about their broader situations.”
Qadri said the gates, cameras and overall degree of security also raises concerns about the freedom of movement and right to privacy among Labor City’s residents.
However, it also likely reflects the government’s fear of riots, job action or other unrest among its large blue-collar expat population.
Earlier this year, another labor camp developer addressed this issue by signing a $2.5 million contract on technology that would help track the construction workers who will live in its new housing projects.
The California-based firm Sysorex’s CEO said of the deal:
“Say there’s a disaster – how many folks are there? Or some sort of riot going on, our technology shows where people are and helps to manage those types of situations.”
Additionally, labor camps have the highest crime rates in Qatar, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a private advisory council for US companies operating abroad.
Finally, the human rights researcher said the new development appears to be part of a broader urban planning strategy to segregate Qatar’s low-income workforce from the general population.
Authorities recently renewed efforts to ban blue-collar expats who live in Qatar without their families from living in established residential areas.
In addition to the 100,000 people slated to live in Labor City and thousands more who already live in the Industrial Area, another purpose-build community for low-income workers, Barwa Al Baraha, is located several kilometers to the south and is expected to house 53,000 residents when it’s fully completed.
“This form of housing is part of a broader urban planning law that has an element of discrimination to it,” Qadri said.