Unpaid for seven months and now homeless, the case of a group of Kenyan workers has highlighted how the complex web of the gig sector in Qatar can get messy.
Leading rights groups, Migrant Rights has urged for action from authorities in Qatar after it found loopholes in the “gig sector” that has left workers stranded and unpaid due to the complex web of actors involved in the system.
In a recent report, Migrant Rights details the story of four Kenyan men who arrived in Qatar in July 2022 to work as car drivers for Wafiq Limousine but allegedly found themselves working as riders for food delivery services Rafeeq and Snoonu instead. Like many, the group say they were promised great opportunities that include stable salaries that would allow them to feed their families back home.
However, such promises were not fulfilled by employers, and the workers have since been been left on the streets with nothing more than the bag of clothes they initially arrived with one year ago.
“I knew my dreams would come true when I came here. But the first day was the day my hope died,” one of the workers told MR, saying that on the first day, he and his three companions quickly discovered they would have to share a tiny, overcrowded room with a dozen other men.
The report claims that the men, Peter, William, James, and Emmanuel*, were recruited by Favorcom Recruitment Agency Ltd, based in Nairobi, which promised them a salary of QAR 2,500 (US$690) per month including food and accommodation.
Peter told the rights organisation that he was “eager” to start working and pay the QAR 6,000 ($1,650) loan he took to pay for recruitment fees.
However, upon arrival in Qatar, they were allegedly forced to sign a contract that totalled only QAR 1,300 ($400) per month, with cramped accommodation shared with 12 other men.
Per Qatar’s labour law, the minimum wage for workers is QAR 1,000 basic salary and an extra QAR 500 for food and accommodation. While the money they received is not against the law, it was far less than what was promised to them initially.
They were also later told they would work as motorcycle delivery riders for Rafeeq, instead of the initial deal of being car drivers.
Such instances have frequently occurred, with recruitment agencies across several countries promising far more than what they provide upon landing in Qatar. To tackle the issue, Qatari authorities introduced the ‘Qatar Visa Centres (QVCs)’ in several countries where recruitment is prominent.
QVCs facilitate the visa application process by mandating that the electronic contract signed at the source matches the one presented at the destination. This ensures that the money that was initially promised is what the worker ends up receiving once they are in the Gulf state.
However, despite recruiting thousands of Kenyans annually, Qatar does not have any QVCs in Kenya, leaving many to face the same fate as the four men.
As a result, the men said they were left with little option but to persevere as they had already invested significant sums of money during their migration process, despite being offered unfavourable employment terms.
“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 QAR 1,000 I decided to just work for it,” Peter told Migrant Rights.
Behind closed doors
The complex web of sponsorship and subcontracting in gig industries often allows employers to evade contractual responsibilities.
According to Migrant-Rights.Org, three workers were sponsored by Wafiq Limousine while the fourth is sponsored by Fowri for delivery services. Their manager, named by the report as Mohammed W, is listed as the authorised signatory of Fowri’s establishment and reportedly signed the contract for those sponsored by Wafiq.
Despite working 12-16 hours a day for seven months, they say they were not paid their salaries or food allowance, except for the first month, with only QAR 200 for food. However, they continued to rely on tips to afford their basic needs and support their family, but as the World Cup came to an end, the tips were simply not enough.
“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?” one person told MR.
The company owes Peter, William, and Emmanuel QAR 78,00 each, while James is owed QAR 6,500. None of the workers were registered in the Wage Protection System, and they received their salaries in cash, which is illegal under Qatar’s labour laws. The company also did not provide any of them with health insurance, forcing one of them to work despite suffering from a road accident that was not treated.
The workers say they took action and filed a legal case against their employer, however he terminated their contracts, closed their phone lines, and prevented them from working, according to MR. They were left with no money for food.
The report also states the employer stopped paying for their accommodation, ultimately leaving them homeless. The workers believe such action was taken to force them to leave the country, which in turn would scrap the legal case against the employer.
Doha News reached out to the Government Communications Office for a statement but did not receive it at the time of the publication.
However, an official who works at the labour ministry told Doha News that the government institutions receive various complaints with similar scenarios.
The process, he explained, takes more than three months minimum to be resolved, which gives employers ample time to make use of their power to either deport or pressure the workers to drop their cases.
“It is very unfortunate but we see it happen very often. We try our best to make sure the complaints are resolved, but sometimes it’s too late,” the official said.
For the Kenyan men, and many others, their cases are even more complicated.
FairSquare’s recent report reveals that gig economy workers, particularly those employed by subcontracting arrangements, are vulnerable to exploitation and wage theft. The report details the experiences of 160 delivery workers in Qatar, mostly from Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya, who were employed by Infinity Delivery Services and Infinity Limousine Services.
These e,ployees worked on behalf of various food delivery companies and were not paid for as long as eight months. Despite being employed on commission, which makes it harder for them to seek justice, there are no laws or policies regulating their work terms in GCC states.
The questionable subcontracting process can also make it difficult for them to identify who is responsible for their working conditions and file complaints.
“We has been made aware of several cases of gig workers not being paid their salaries over the past year. We are liaising with the ILO Doha Office on these cases and will continue to work with the Ministry of Labour under the ITF-MoL MoU to ensure gig workers’ rights are protected,” Stephen Cotton, the The International Transport Workers’ Federation General Secretary, told MR.
“The ITF has begun work on a research project mapping Qatar’s ‘gig economy’, which we hope will assist the MoL to take further targeted action to root out poor employer practices. It is imperative that both the workers’ direct employer and the gig companies to which they are seconded are held accountable for labour rights violations,” he added.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Migrant-Rights.org told Doha News that the problem of wage theft and labour exploitation is present across all industries, but it is particularly pronounced in the gig sector due to the unique characteristics of employment. In this sector, the employer is often not the sponsor, and there are multiple intermediaries involved.
“For dispatch riders, you have the food outlet, the app itself, and the contractors who are providing vehicles and riders. But the subcontractors may not have enough employees, so they in turn use another sub-contractor to provide riders. It’s really messy. Most workers are not aware that they will not be getting a fixed salary and that they will work on commissions,” they explained.
“It is important the government introduce laws and regulations specifically for this sector, mapping the chain of responsibility, and ensure they are all held to account. There are specific risks to this job, like traffic fines, accidents etc, and insurance coverage needs to be more comprehensive.”
In a statement to Doha News, Rafeeq denied all the allegations as “null” and void. Though the company claims it has records to disprove the claims, the workers, also say they have their own evidence.
However, the company, said accommodation is the suppliers’ responsibility, reflecting why it is hard for the company to take responsibility for such injustice.
“For our third-party suppliers, we have a contract and attested from the Ministry of Justice (SAK),” the company explained in the statement when asked about the efforts taken to protect the workers.
“We are attending the complaints of suppliers drivers if they have any problem and immediately take actions against the supplier company.”
Because the responsibility falls mainly on the contractor, it is almost ‘safe’ for the driving food companies to take the blame. And despite the recent allegations, Rafeeq has not suspended its contract with the third-party company.
“Rafeeq company is extending our help for those drivers stranded. They are welcome to come here in our office and approach us to discuss what possible assistance we can offer,” the company told Doha News.
Snoonu, however, told Doha News that it blocked the mentioned company to ensure the rights of all its workers are met. However, the company claims that after checking its database, none of the employees mentioned were working for Snoonu.
“Those riders’ agreements are with a local Kenyan agency and a limousine company in Qatar it is subject to their internal agreement specifically those if they take 5 months to have driving license and didn’t even start with us. However, we will still go above and beyond to ensure that these issues can be addressed and solved,” Snoonu’s statement to Doha News read.
The riders, Snoonu explains, do not have access to issues like payment, but are only monitored by MOL. “We have cases where driver’s complaints to us and we helped them to change companies,” it said.
“As for the 3rd company failed to pay, we checked our database of drivers none of those mentioned worked for us so mostly they stay in accommodation or worked for another company , however, Snoonu blocked the mention company from working as supplier as support to those drivers,” the statement added.
The company also has a dedicated hotline built for their riders to raise any concern about their company or get real-time support, it assured.
It is unclear whether the drivers mentioned in the report sought help from Rafeeq and Snoonu or only from authorities. Now, they group is awaiting their court hearing, scheduled for May.
*Names changed to protect workers’ identities.