Browsing 'migrant labor' News

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?

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Asserting that migrant workers should not “lose their freedom for a piece of bread,” researchers and religious scholars have called on Qatar and other countries to improve foreigners’ treatment so that it is more in line with Islamic traditions and values.

In addition to overhauling its kafala sponsorship system, there needs to be a shift in attitudes so that foreigners are seen and treated as equals, panelists said last night during a discussion hosted by Qatar’s Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE).

“We see (migrants) working for us … But there is no appreciation. There is no love dedicated to those people,” said Sheikh Ali Al Quradaghi, secretary general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars. “The earth was made for all creatures, all human beings, not one category of people,” he added.

Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies mosque

Chantelle D'mello

Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies mosque

The discussion at CILE, which is part of Hamad bin Khalifa University’s Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS), comes as Qatar prepares to amend legislation that governs the relationship between expats and their sponsors.

While the specific reforms contained in the new law are not yet known, the original proposals drafted by government officials aimed to make it easier for foreigners to leave the country and change jobs.

Last night, Al Quradaghi praised Qatar’s leaders for their willingness to address the issue and, like other panelists, directed his recommendations to countries across the region with large expat populations and not just Qatar.

But he and the other speakers called for changes – such as paying individuals equally for doing the same work regardless of their nationality, compensating employees fairly as well as giving domestic workers the same rights as other migrants by including them under the Labor Law – that Qatar has so far been reluctant to consider.

‘We need to take care of these people’

To illustrate his argument, Al Quradaghi highlighted the actions of Omar Ibn al-Khattab.

When the second caliph after the Prophet Muhammad came upon an elderly Jewish man begging and asked why, the man said he had worked for 50 years but still needed money to pay for his basic needs.

Al Quradaghi recounted that Omar was surprised and instructed that money be given to the man because he had been treated unfairly during his working career – a move, Al Quradaghi suggested, that governments and employers in the region should take inspiration from.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Richard Messenger/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

“Arab and Muslim countries ought to take care of those who provide long periods of service and participate in the building of these countries,” he said. “We need to take care of these people.”

Specifically, he said wage levels need to be examining in the context of the cost of living in nations such as Qatar.

“QR1,000 (a month), for example, in this country cannot be good enough,” he said.

There is no national minimum wage in Qatar. Instead, the government negotiates different salary levels with individual countries.

These bilateral agreements mean that workers are paid different amounts based on their nationality, said Latife Reda, a research consultant at the International Labor Organization in Lebanon.

Domestic workers

She told the audience last night that labor and workers’ rights are a “fundamental” part of Islamic traditions, including equal pay for equal work and the right to decent living and working conditions.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Stephan Geyer/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Reda specifically highlighted how domestic workers across the GCC as well as in countries such as Lebanon are not covered under the labor law.

Human rights organizations including Amnesty International have said this exclusion leaves maids, nannies and other household workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation and other abuse from their sponsors, as there are few checks against the power of the employer beyond the criminal justice system.

Reda recommended that domestic employees be covered by the labor law, which she argued would lead to these workers being included in other measures, such as social security reforms.

This was also one of the recommendations of Jabir Al Howaiel, director of legal affairs at Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee.

While also calling on the government to sign on to multiple international treaties and conventions dealing with migrant rights, Al Howaiel added that current challenges could not be solved through mandatory standards alone:

“Respect and dignity of humans should be part of our culture so every human can live with dignity and liberate himself from fear in an environment that is conducive to security and development,” he said. “Workers ought not to lose their freedom for a piece of bread. They need to live with dignity.”

For illustrative purposes only

Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy

For illustrative purposes only

In response to concerns about worker rights, some local organizations have introduced better housing and employment standards for its contractors.

This includes the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is overseeing the construction of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums and published a set of workers’ welfare standards to protect employees on its building sites.

Last week, the committee published an article based on its visits to the Midmac labor camp, which is home to the workers constructing Khalifa International Stadium, that concluded its policies were working:

“‘We made a final inspection just before they moved in and had a walk through,’ explained Megan Jenkins, SC Governance and Enforcement Manager, Workers’ Welfare…‘All of our comments and feedback got taken on board. It was like a 3D model of what we had written on paper coming to life. When you see how it can look and work, you realise we are on the right track with the Standards.’”

Last night’s panel discussion followed a workshop attended by migration and human rights experts aimed at exploring the role of Islamic legislation and ethics in how Arab countries deal with expatriates.

Rajai Ray Jureidini, a QFIS professor of ethics and migration who moderated last night’s event, told Doha News that he hoped the discussions would spur a series of academic papers that could eventually be compiled into a book.

Thoughts?

Labor camp

Penny Yi Wang / Doha News

A labor camp in Qatar

Harsher penalties for negligent employers and faster processing of labor-related complaints are among the recommendations that a leading expert on Qatar’s expat workforce is scheduled to present to government officials later today.

Andrew Gardner, an associate professor at the University of Puget Sound in the US, also calls for allowing migrants to legally work for other companies while pursuing a case against their employer, as well as additional translation services, as ways of improving migrants’ access to the justice system.

Gardner, who has studied migrant workers in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf for more than a decade, co-authored a report released today titled, Labour Migrants and Access to Justice in Contemporary Qatar.

He has documented the frequently cited hardships faced by low-income workers in the Gulf. Many migrants sign contracts in their home country that promise higher wages and different jobs that what await them in Qatar. Once in the country, many have their passports confiscated and are not paid on time or in full.

While human rights activists say the solution lies in an overhaul of Qatar’s sponsorship, or kafala, system that binds most expats to their employer, Gardner’s most recent report focuses on making the justice system more responsive to the needs of blue-collar workers.

“This is where corrections can be instigated and changes can be incrementally made,” he told Doha News.

He said his research suggests that those workers who file labor-related complaints over issues such as non-payment of wages and manage to “make it to the finish line” often receive a favorable ruling, but face hurdles along the way.

Challenges include understanding how to approach the justice system, language barriers, finding transportation to hearings and, in some cases, not having any income as their case proceeds.

“There is some optimism … The real issue is not finally what is getting decided in the courtroom, but it is getting to that point,” Gardner said.

He’s scheduled to meet with several ministers and bureaucrats later today to present his recommendations, which he said are in the interests of both migrants and the government.

“The state wants a better and more responsive justice system, because it’s their tool to manage the (migration) system. And migrants want a better system.”

Legal journey

Workers in Qatar exit bus.

Richard Messenger / Flickr

Workers in Qatar exit a bus.

For many workers who have not been paid, issued a residence permit or have otherwise had their employment contract breached, the journey typically begins at their country’s embassy in Qatar.

If mediation efforts by diplomats fail to resolve the issue, workers are generally advised to file a complaint at one of the Department of Labor Relations’ three branches. This leads to a meeting between the worker and their employer and, according to Gardner’s report, officials say they resolve 90 percent of the 350 to 400 cases received each month at this stage.

However, companies sometimes don’t co-operate or fail to follow through with promises made to the Department of Labor Relations. In such instances, the matter can be escalated to the Labor Court.

However, workers then face fresh challenges and delays, such as being forced to pay a fee of QR500-QR600 for an expert to examine their case, as well as strict requirements for serving company managers with official court notices.

Gardner’s report contains several case studies based on interviews with individual workers, including “Abdus,” who came to Qatar from Nepal to work as a welder:

“He was told that he would earn QR 1000 (US$275) per month, but for his first two months he received only QR 800 (US$220). Then his employer stopped paying him at all and reassigned him to work as a ‘helper,’ first in carpentry and then in construction … (Owed five months salary) he went to the Industrial Area office of the Department of Labor Relations on seven consecutive days. No one from his company appeared at any of the appointments …

“Because his sponsor failed to appear at the Department of Labor Relations, his case was referred to Labor Court. He went to the Labor Court to file his case and was given his first court date for three months later. After that, he was typically given subsequent court dates approximately once per month. At most of these appearances in court, Abdus was simply told to return the following month.

“After several months of unemployment, he began working illegally as a gardener for his brother’s sponsor. In the end, approximately ten months after he filed the initial complaint, Abdus received the court-ordered QR 4500 (US$1,236) in compensation from the company.”

Solutions

Empty wallet

PayDay Savvy/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

During this legal process, companies typically stop paying the worker and cease providing them with food and accommodations, according to an embassy source cited by Gardner.

This can force the migrant to borrow money from friends, work illegally or obtain assistance from their embassy and serves as a disincentive for workers to pursue their case through to completion.

While the Ministry of Interior can theoretically grant a worker a no-objection certificate allowing them to change sponsors, Gardner recommends making it easier for migrants who have filed a labor complaint to seek alternative employment.

Additionally, he calls for sanctions against employers who fail to pay their employees or otherwise break the law. The report said courts do not currently have the ability to apply disciplinary sanctions against companies, such as financial penalties.

“Without more punitive measures, it is quite easy for abusive employers … (to) stop paying migrants. At worst, they may be forced to pay them (what they’re owed),” Gardner said.

Other recommendations include:

  • Giving the Department of Labor Relations the capacity to compel employers and/or sponsors to appear for proceedings and negotiations;
  • Make it the responsibility of the Department of Labor Relations, rather than migrants, to pass necessary documentation on to employers;
  • The Department of Labor Relations should have follow-up meetings with some of the migrants whose cases it negotiates to assess how often employers fulfil agreements negotiated there;
  • Signs in the Department of Labor Relations and Labor Court should be in multiple major languages and translators should be provided;
  • Upon winning a case, migrants should be able to quickly receive compensation. Typically, migrants need to file a separate case in order to receive the compensation determined in the initial case.

Government action

New MOLSA kiosk.

ADLSA

New MOLSA kiosk.

In recent months, Qatar has taken several steps aimed at making it easier for workers to file grievances against their employers.

This includes setting up multilingual electronic kiosks for workers to lodge complaints and mandating that employees be paid by direct bank deposit, which would more clearly document how much – and when – an individual has been paid.

More broadly, Gardner said the Qatar government is generally receptive to the advice of researchers on migrant issues. He added that contrasts with other Gulf countries with similar issues related to their foreign workforce.

“In the UAE, these issues are off the table. They’s not things that foreigners should be looking at or writing about. Here, these things are entertained,” he said.

Here’s a copy of the full report:

Labour Migrants and Access to Justice in Contemporary Qatar

Thoughts?