Qatar’s government has launched plans to construct seven new “integrated communities” for blue-collar workers that will accommodate a total of 179,000 residents across the country.
On Thursday, officials from the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning (MMUP) signed an agreement with three private developers to begin construction on the first phase of the initiative in Umm Slal, northeast of Doha.
The 251-acre site will be developed as a complete town containing mosques, medical buildings, laundry areas, catered dining halls and other amenities. When it’s completed by the end of 2017, it will be able to accommodate some 24,000 men, officials said at a press conference this week.
“Qatar is keen to meet all the needs of workers by providing them with accommodations that allow them to lead a dignified life,” Jamal Shareeda Al-Kaabi, the director of MMUP’s Central Planning Office, said in a presentation.
Tackling housing issues
For many, scenes of overcrowded and unsanitary labor camps lined with bunk beds have come to symbolize the abuse of Qatar’s blue-collar expats, which Amnesty International said this week remains “rampant” across the country.
Local authorities have attempted to tackle the issue by requiring contractors working on World Cup stadiums and training facilities, as well as Qatar Foundation projects, to meet minimum living and working standards that go above and beyond Qatar’s laws.
Additionally, the government and state-backed developers have constructed new purpose-built laborer communities, such as Barwa Al Baraha and the recently completed Labor City in the Industrial Area, that consist of low-rise apartment buildings close to amenities aimed at low-income expats.
But some human rights activists have argued that Qatar’s labor housing woes are merely a symptom of the country’s restrictive sponsorship system, which makes it difficult for expats to change jobs, leave the country or seek legal redress if they’re mistreated by their employers.
Replacing older camps
In total, Labor City, Barwa Al Baraha and the Umm Slal complex – as well as the future phases of the housing complexes announced Thursday that have yet to be contracted out – will accommodate some 325,000 residents.
To put that number into context, there were nearly 631,000 expat men working in Qatar’s construction industry last year, in addition to 131,000 in the manufacturing sector, according to government statistics.
While not all of the country’s blue-collar workforce will be able to live in Qatar’s new model laborer communities, the developers involved in the Umm Slal project said they hope the new options will spell the end of some of Qatar’s more decrepit housing complexes:
“We won’t substitute every (existing) labor camp,” Jassim Abdulla Al Mesned, chairman of property management firm Shaqab, told Doha News. “But surely, it will substitute any camp which does not follow the minimum requirements (for) labor camps … in Qatar.”
However, some have questioned whether Qatar’s most vulnerable expats would end up living in these new developments.
Critics have suggested that the companies willing and able to pay a premium to house their employees in areas such as Labor City are most likely to be large firms that treat their staff better than some smaller subcontractors or staffing firms.
To mitigate this issue, Al-Kaabi said the monthly rent at the Umm Slal complex would be capped at QR650 per person.
A first in Qatar
Officials declined to discuss how much the Umm Slal project or future developments would cost to construct, apart from saying that the government would chip in QR1.6 billion to build new roads and utilities for all seven sites.
The three developers – Shaqab, as well as Redco and Gulf Systems – will finance, construct and operate these facilities for 15 years, during which time they will keep the rental revenue they collect. At the end of the agreement, the properties will be turned over to the government.
This is the first time this type of public-private partnership will be used to build a housing project of this scale in Qatar, officials said at the press conference, adding it gives the developers an incentive to complete construction on time.
“The sooner they start, the sooner they can start earning a return,” Al-Kaabi said.