Migrant workers stage protest in Qatar over harsh conditions, unpaid wages

Protest reflects foreign labourers’ worsening plight amid pandemic.
Saturday 23/05/2020
Workers wearing protective masks walk by on a street in Qatar’s capital Doha. (AFP)
Workers wearing protective masks walk by on a street in Qatar’s capital Doha. (AFP)

DOHA/ LONDON--Migrant labourers staged a rare protest in Qatar over unpaid wages, the government acknowledged Saturday.

The protest came amid complaints by the migrant community about harsh living conditions made worse by the pandemic.

Human rights groups have frequently expressed concern over the treatment of workers, including the lack of payment of due salaries, food shortages and hazardous detention conditions for those under arrest.

Workers transport rolls of fabric on a street in Qatar’s capital Doha. (AFP)
Workers transport rolls of fabric on a street in Qatar’s capital Doha. (AFP)

Images on social media showed more than 100 men blocking a main road in the Msheireb district of the capital Doha late Friday, clapping and chanting under the eyes of the police.

“In response to the late settlement of salaries, a small number of expatriate workers conducted a peaceful protest in the Msheireb area on May 22,” the labour ministry admitted in a statement.

“Following an immediate investigation (the ministry) has taken steps to ensure that all salaries will be promptly paid in the coming days,” said an official statement carried by Qatari news agency QNA.

Millions of foreigners, mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, work in Qatar. Many live in squalid camps far from the region’s showy skyscrapers and malls.

Almost 90 percent of Qatar’s population are expatriate workers as the country tries to complete dozens of mega-projects ahead of the 2022 World Cup. There have been reports of several deaths among labourers working in inclement weather conditions.

But the coronavirus and its devastating economic impact have left many workers sick and others unemployed, unpaid and at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.

The pandemic made the workers’ predicament even more dire, especially for those in detention.

There have been 42,213 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic outbreak.

Qatar detained dozens of migrant workers and expelled them last month after telling them they were being taken to be tested for the new coronavirus, the human rights group Amnesty International said last month.

The plight of foreign labourers in jail was also criticised by Human Rights Watch, this month.

Twenty Nepali men were quoted by Amnesty as saying Qatari police had apprehended hundreds of migrant workers on the street, then held them in detention for several days. They were then flown to Nepal.

One of the Nepalis told the London-based rights group:

“The jail was full of people. We were given one piece of bread each day, which was not enough. All the people were fed in a group, with food lying on plastic on the floor.”

Workers inside the Lusail stadium under construction for the 2022 Fifa football World Cup. (REUTERS)
Workers inside the Lusail stadium under construction for the 2022 Fifa football World Cup. (REUTERS)

Only three men said they had had their temperature checked while in detention, but most said they had been checked before flying out of Qatar.

Amnesty said all the workers had left Qatar without receiving salaries owed or end-of-service benefits.

Low-paid migrant workers in the wealthy oil states often have large, high-interest debts from costs accrued in securing work, rights groups say.

Such workers are vulnerable to the spread of the virus because they commonly live in crowded labour camps, where one room can sleep about a dozen workers, or share housing with many others in densely populated districts. Many have lost jobs and may not have good access to healthcare.