Rights group denounces migrant workers’ wage abuses in Qatar

“We have heard of workers starving due to delayed wages, indebted workers toiling in Qatar only to get underpaid wages, and workers trapped in abusive working conditions due to fear of retaliation,” said Human Right Watch.

Tuesday 25/08/2020
A file picture shows workers on the construction site at the Al-Wakrah Stadium near Doha. (AFP)

NEW YORK – As the 2022 World Cup draws closer, “Qatari authorities’ efforts to protect migrant workers’ right to accurate and timely wages have largely proven unsuccessful,” Human Rights Watch revealed in a report released Monday.

Despite a handful of reforms in recent years, withheld and unpaid salaries, as well as other wage abuses, are persistent and widespread across at least 60 employers and companies in Qatar, the  international non-governmental organisation said.

The 78-page report titled, “‘How Can We Work Without Wages?’: Salary Abuses Facing Migrant Workers Ahead of Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022″ shows that employers across Qatar frequently violate workers’ right to wages and that Qatar has failed to meet its 2017 commitment to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to protect migrant workers from wage abuses and to abolish the kafala system, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers.

Human Rights Watch found case after case of wage abuse across various occupations, including security guards, servers, baristas, bouncers, cleaners, management staff and construction workers.

“Ten years since Qatar won the right to host the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup 2022, migrant workers are still facing delayed, unpaid, and deducted wages,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“We have heard of workers starving due to delayed wages, indebted workers toiling in Qatar only to get underpaid wages, and workers trapped in abusive working conditions due to fear of retaliation.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 93 migrant workers working for more than 60 companies or employers and reviewed legal documents and reports for its report.

Qatar has been dependent on 2 million migrant workers, making up about 95% of its total labour force.

Many are building or servicing the stadiums, transportation, hotels and infrastructure for the upcoming football tournament.

While they come to Qatar in hope of stable jobs and incomes, many are instead met with wage abuses that drive them further into debt and trap them in these jobs with ineffective mechanisms of redress.

Fifty-nine workers said their wages had been delayed, withheld or not paid; 9 workers said they had not been paid because employers said they didn’t have enough clients; 55 said they weren’t paid for overtime even though they worked more than 10 hours a day; and 13 said their employers had replaced their original employment contract with one favouring employers. Twenty said they didn’t receive mandatory end-of-service benefits; and 12 said employers made arbitrary deductions from their salaries.

Wage abuses have been further exacerbated since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Some employers used the disease as a pretext to withhold wages or refuse to pay outstanding wages to workers who are detained and forcibly repatriated. Some workers said they could not even afford to buy food. Others said they went into debt to survive.

Earlier in June, Amnesty International revealed  in a report that around 100 employees of a Qatari subcontractor, Qatar Meta Coats (QMC), working on the Al Bayt stadium went up to seven months without pay and continue to be owed unpaid salaries, Amnesty said in a report.

QMC has also not renewed residency permits for most of its workers, necessary for foreigners working in Qatar, the rights watchdog said.

Workers interviewed said they had paid fees ranging from $900 to $2,000 to recruitment agents in their own countries for the job, Amnesty said.

According to Human Rights Watch, the kafala system was one of the factors facilitating wage abuses.

In 2017, Qatar promised to abolish the kafala system, and while the introduction of some measures has chipped away at it, the system still grants employers unchecked power and control over migrant workers.

Wage abuses are also driven by deceptive recruitment practices both in Qatar and in the workers’ home countries that require them to pay between about $700 and $2,600 to secure jobs in Qatar.

By the time workers arrive in Qatar, they are already indebted and trapped in jobs that often pay less than promised.

Human Rights Watch found that 72 of the workers interviewed had taken loans to pay recruitment fees. Business practices, including the so-called “pay when paid” clause, worsen the wage abuse.

These practices allow subcontractors that have not been paid to delay payments to workers.

Wage abuses are among the most common and most devastating violations of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, where various iterations of the kafala system exist, Human Rights Watch said.

To tackle wage abuse, the Qatari government created the Wage Protection System (WPS) in 2015, Labour Dispute Resolution Committees in 2017 and the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund in 2018.

But the non-governmental organisation found that the WPS can be better described as a wage monitoring system with significant gaps in its oversight capacity. Employers frequently take away workers’ ATM cards, which are supposed to be used by workers to draw their wages.

Similarly, taking wage abuse cases to the committees can be difficult, costly, time-consuming and ineffective, and workers fear retaliation by employers. And the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, meant to ensure that workers are paid when companies cannot pay, only became operational earlier this year.

In October 2019, the government announced reforms that would establish a non-discriminatory minimum wage for all migrant workers in Qatar and allow them to change or leave their jobs without employer consent.

However, other elements of the system that can leave employers with some control over their workers appear slated to remain. The reforms were expected to be rolled out in January 2020.