Browsing 'WPS' News

Msheireb construction site.

Msheireb / Facebook

Msheireb construction site.

In a rare work stoppage, several hundred men at the Msheireb Downtown Doha construction site went on strike over the weekend and continue to remain off the job in a dispute over unpaid wages, a labor representative has said.

The employer, subcontractor Drake & Scull, told Doha News that the issue stemmed from a one-time delay in paying salaries because of new requirements under Qatar’s wage protection system.

Witnesses told Doha News that between 200 and 400 men stopped working at approximately 7am on Saturday. While most described the incident as a peaceful protest, others said some individuals aggressively confronted their supervisors.

Some men smashed air conditioning units and broke doors, said a Qatar-based representative of Building and Wood Worker’s International (BWI) – a trade union umbrella organization – who spoke to more than a half-dozen Drake & Scull employees who were involved in the protest.

The labor representative said the police were called in and helped mediate a temporary solution with managers by having the construction workers return to their accommodation in the Industrial Area.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

He said the workers – who hail from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines – were told they would be paid by Thursday and are receiving food at their labor camp since many have run out of money to purchase their own provisions.

During previous visits to Qatar, BWI officials visited Msheireb as well as other sites. At the time, delegates said during a press conference that they were generally pleased with what they saw at Msheireb but found a “disturbing evidence of wrong practices” and a general “climate of fear” among migrant workers in Qatar.

More recently, BWI published an article on its website this month about the formation of several “support networks” for migrant workers in Qatar.

Strikes

Strikes – especially those involving a larger number of workers – are uncommon in Qatar, where authorities are highly sensitive to dissent among its large foreign workforce.

They have previously responded to protests with a show of force, such as at a short-lived riot at the under-renovation Sheraton Hotel in June 2014.

Riot police arrive in buses to the Sheraton Hotel.

Peter Kovessy / Doha News

Riot police arrive in buses to the Sheraton Hotel.

A handful of other work stoppages occurred that year, including a protest by Al Million taxi drivers and a strike by employees of two subcontracting firms that led to the deportation of some 100 construction workers.

This risk of punishment means a strike “is often a last resort” for expats in Qatar, Amnesty International researcher Mustafa Qadri told Doha News.

Meanwhile, questions remain about whether the workers involved in this weekend’s strike will be disciplined.

“Their assumption is that (they will be paid) and be deported,” the BWI representative said.

In a statement to Doha News, Msheireb Properties confirmed that the incident caused work to be temporarily suspended on a small part of the 76.6-acre site on Saturday and Sunday.

The company added that while the strike did not involve any workers directly employed by the developer, the firm is working with its contractors to resolve the dispute.

Unpaid wages

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Lesley Walker

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Delayed or unpaid wages are one of the most common complaints of blue-collar expats in Qatar, whose treatment has come under scrutiny as the country constructs stadiums, infrastructure and real estate developments in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup.

However, Drake & Scull said this incident was an anomaly for the company caused by the new wage protection system, which took effect earlier this month and requires employers to pay their workers electronically. It also mandates firms create a digital record of the payments.

In a statement, the company – which has operations across the Middle East and further afield – told Doha News:

“The integration of workers’ records into the system faced certain technical issues and incompatibilities which resulted in a delay of the transfer of payments…

Drake & Scull management engaged with the workers to address their concerns immediately. The delay in payments was an unanticipated and unprecedented occurrence for Drake & Scull Qatar and we have taken the necessary steps to prevent such a situation from arising in the future.”

How long the workers went without a paycheck is still in dispute.

The BWI representative said the men he spoke to were being paid QR1,600 monthly, which includes a food allowance.

Msheireb Properties is a part of Qatar Foundation, which has published minimum worker welfare standards that require its contractors to go beyond what’s set out in the law. The company said it is investigating the incident and has already met with the main contractor and subcontractor to identify how the dispute arose:

“Msheireb Properties is working closely with parties involved to ensure that this situation is resolved as soon as possible and in a satisfactory manner,” it said, adding that it contractually requires all contractors and suppliers to abide by Qatar’s laws.

“Msheireb Properties is taking this incident seriously and is firmly committed to stand against any form of exploitation, abuse or injustice.”

Thoughts?

Residents line up at a bank to open accounts ahead of the WPS.

Jidhu Jose

Residents line up at a bank to open accounts ahead of the WPS.

With reporting from Riham Sheble

Several hundred Qatar residents have been queuing up outside of banks – sometimes for up to 12 hours – to open accounts as the new wage protection system (WPS) comes into force.

The amendment to the country’s labor law, which was approved by the Emir in February, took effect yesterday. This means firms are now required to pay employee salaries through direct bank transfers.

The measure is aimed at making it easier for expats and the government to scrutinize and document any late or non-existing payments, one of the biggest complaints among blue-collar workers here.

The law also requires companies to pay employees at least monthly, in Qatari riyals.

Long queues

In Qatar, an expat’s sponsor must provide foreign residents with the paperwork that’s required to open a bank account.

Even though companies were given a six-month grace period to comply with the law – which was discussed by Qatar’s cabinet as far back as May 2014 – it appears many waited until the last minute.

A supervisor at a water bottling facility in Qatar said he only heard of the new rules in early October and started the process of completing the paperwork for the company’s employees within days.

The manager, who asked that neither his name or company name be published, suggested procrastination on the part of some companies was also to blame for this week’s rush:

“Everyone will be going at the last moment,” he said.

This week, several residents told Doha News that they spent more than 12 hours sitting outside a bank waiting to open a new account.

Residents line up at a bank to open accounts ahead of the WPS.

Peter Kovessy

Residents line up at a bank to open accounts ahead of the WPS.

Many banks have opened special departments to handle the influx of customers, and some allocated specific branches that people should go to so as to not crowd out others using the bank.

For example, workers who were told by their employers to open their accounts at Qatar International Islamic Bank (QIIB) had to go to Barwa Village or its branch on Salwa Road.

Security guards estimated that approximately 200 new customers were at the Barwa Village branch on Sunday. On Monday, an additional 180 people showed up at the branch, security said.

One man from the Philippines said he arrived at 3:30am on Monday morning and found that there were already 70 people, many of whom were lying on the ground, ahead of him.

“Why don’t they designate more branches (to process applications)?” he asked.

A man from Sri Lanka said a company bus brought employees to the bank at 2am, but would not return for them until 4pm.

Residents line up at a bank to open accounts ahead of the WPS.

Peter Kovessy / Doha News

Residents line up at a bank to open accounts ahead of the WPS.

He did, however, say that he expected that his company would pay his salary for that day.

Media reports say other residents were not so lucky.

Last month, the Qatar Tribune quoted one man who said his company would not give him any time off to open a bank account, which forced him to spend the night outside the bank so he could be one of the first people inside when it opened before rushing to work.

A manager of the Barwa Village QIIB said he could not officially comment and directed Doha News to QIIB’s head office. Efforts to reach a bank spokesperson were unsuccessful.

Lots of customers

Some 50,000 companies are expected to be part of Qatar’s WPS.

Though banks have had several months to sort out the new WPS, the sheer number of people who need new accounts may be slowing down the process.

Researchers have previously estimated that Qatar is home to some 700,000 low-income expats working in unskilled or semi-skilled positions.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Anthony/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

A large number of these foreign residents were traditionally paid in cash, although some companies – such as construction firm UCC – said they’ve paid employees through local bank accounts for several years.

In a circular sent to banks in early August, the Qatar Central Bank (QCB) said that all new accounts set up under WPS should be processed through a separate system that it has established.

Additionally, it set out separate rules including a cap of a QR10 fee for sending money out of the country.

In a separate circular, QCB warned banks against taking a commission from workers’ salaries under the WPS, which it “considered a violation” of its instructions.

Thoughts?

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Updated on August 25 with statement from UCC

A new system that will make it mandatory for companies in Qatar to pay their workers’ wages directly into bank accounts is not expected to officially come into effect for at least another two months, legal sources have said.

The Wage Protection System, an amendment to Article 66 of Qatar’s Labor Law (No. 14 of 2004), was approved by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Feb. 18.

The new system aims to address problems surrounding non- and late payment of wages, particularly for blue-collar workers, by requiring all firms to register their employees’ details with Qatar Central Bank and to pay them at least monthly.

The law states the payment must be paid in Qatari riyals directly into a bank account, or risk penalties of up to one month in prison and a maximum QR6,000 fine.

Timeline confusion

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Michael Graffin/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

When the Emir approved the law, it was announced that a six-month grace period would be given for companies to comply with the new regulations before it was enforced.

Confusion has surrounded the date of the end of the grace period, with many observers expecting the deadline to expire today (Aug. 18) – six months from when the Emir signed off on the legislation.

However, laws in Qatar are not officially enacted until they are published in the Official Gazette, a document issued monthly in Arabic by the Ministry of Justice.

The relevant Labor Law amendments (Law No. 1 of 2015, an unofficial English translation of which can be found here) concerning the Wage Protection System appeared in the Official Gazette on April 2, law firm Squire Patton Boggs noted in an online client advisory on the issue.

According to this, the deadline for compliance with the new law should be counted six months from then, which would be Oct. 2.

However, the law allows for the grace period to be extended for a further “six months or more,” upon a decision by the Minister for Labor and Social Affairs.

Enforcement

Speaking to Doha News today, a lawyer who works for an international law firm here said that authorities in Qatar are planning to enforce the new legislation from early November.

“The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has told us verbally that Nov. 2 will be the date that it (the WPS) starts,” the source said.

It is also understood that banks in Qatar have a similar understanding of this timeline.

Since Qatar won hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup, it has faced significant international scrutiny over the human rights of its blue-collar workforce.

In May last year, authorities promised a series of reforms to the controversial kafala (sponsorship) system, but so far the WPS is the only change to be enshrined in law.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Chantelle D'mello

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Not being paid on time or at all by their employers are among the top complaints of workers in Qatar.

Electronic salary transfers are one way the nation can tackle these abuses, and human rights’ organizations have been urging Qatar to adopt it.

Implementation of the online wage payment system has been in the works for more than a year, with the draft law approved by the State Cabinet in May last year.

At that time, the plan was to roll out the new system in stages, with phase one for firms with 500 or more employees, phase two for those with 100-500 members of staff and the final stage compliant on companies with fewer than 100 employees.

However, there is no mention of this detail in the published amendments to Article 66 and it is unclear if this will still be the case.

Ready to comply?

As the state’s banking regulator, Qatar Central Bank (QCB) is responsible for creating and handling the new system.

The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs – which is the government department responsible for overseeing the recruitment of all non-domestic workers to Qatar – are also involved in the new system.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Duncan Smith/Corbis

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

According to an article on the issue published by local lawyer Ahmed Jaafir of Al Tamimi & Co, QCB contacted all banks in Qatar on Dec. 29, 2014 “instructing them to be ready to receive the wage files of their customers’ workers and process them through the Workers’ Wages Protection System no later than Jan. 15, 2015.”

The Peninsula reports that banks have been told that workers using the new system should be able to withdraw money from their accounts at least five times a month for free, before service charges are imposed.

Some retail banks, such as Commercial Bank, have issued statements announcing their readiness to comply with the new system.

However, it is not known how many companies have so far set up bank accounts for their workers, and if progress to adopt the new system is being monitored by the authorities.

At least one Qatari firm said it has already started paying its workers electronically.

Urbacon Trading & Contracting (UCC) told Doha News in a statement that its workforce has been paid through local bank accounts for the last “several years.”

The company’s CEO, Moataz Al Khayyat, said new employees are put into the system and issued with a debit card. It has a permanent Doha Bank ATM in its workers’ accommodation site and additional mobile ATMs are brought in are when salaries are paid out.

The workers payment protection is essential to ensure that all companies in the country pay their workforce on-time. UCC/KCT (Khayyat Trading & Contracting) supports such initiatives and ensures that its workforce are taken care of in all aspects inclusive of regular and prompt payment,” Al Khayyat added.

Thoughts?