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Sunday, 12 July 2015

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Building a dream, living in hell

“Qatar deserves the best.”

That is the slogan on boundary boards along almost all the important roads in and around Doha, the capital, with a population 1.7 million people. It ranks as the world’s richest country per capita thanks to its massive natural gas reserves. Qatar has the third-largest proven reserves of natural gas in the world.

The country is preparing energetically for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which means a massive construction boom. As the average citizen won’t do the menial work involved, tens of thousands of migrant labourers have taken up the burden. That has opened it to serious accusations of human rights abuses by many rights organizations. Even FIFA tacitly admits it, as its embattled president Sepp Blatter confessed that he could do nothing about that. The amount of construction work in Qatar has to be seen to be believed.

The entire country looks like one vast construction site. The pace and scale of the growth are just incredible. Studies by various NGOs and human rights organizations reveal the organizations that recruit migrants are aware of the issues they face. It is also an open secret that many of the migrants who sign the work contracts are also aware of the working condition and the violations that take place as a matter of routine.

In search of a dream

Jyoti and Kumari are looking open-mouthed at the 3D display of their flight running images of the landscape of the Middle East as the plane crosses Muscat for Doha. They hail from a village near Hyderabad and are on their way to Qatar to work as maids. They got the job through an agent. Both come from a farming village but poverty drove them out into the wider world and new horizons. They know nothing about the politics, the economy, the cultural traditions or even the climate of their destination. They told me they would be received by a local agent who would take them to their place of work. They would probably feel at home in the heat as temperatures around Hyderabad are cruel in summer but for someone who isn’t used to 450C, it’s nothing less than torture. The World Cup doesn’t wait, however. Even in this unforgiving weather, you can see migrant workers slaving away under the blazing sun.

Dark glasses and reflecting vest are ubiquitous. Every tenth vehicle on the road is a bus that carries migrants to and from work and every third person you meet is a migrant from South and Southeast Asia.

Nepali, Indian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Filipino, Pakistani and Egyptian – this is the hierarchical order of the migrant population. An average of 15 new people enters Qatar in any given hour. It is estimated that there are more than 1.3 million foreign nationals working in Qatar. Madu has got his Bluetooth stereo headset on and is listening to Bollywood songs. “The pick-up vehicle will arrive at 3 am and we will be back around 6 pm,” he says.

“Our average sleep time is less than five hours. The system in Qatar is different from home. A worker is owned by his employer who makes you work overtime,” says the engineering diploma holder who is a project supervisor.

Mohamed Salauddin works as a cleaner at the Souq –the art market of Doha selling traditional garments, spices, handicrafts, souvenirs, perfumes and so on. A Nepali, he is getting ready to go home in a month’s time as he hasn’t seen his family since the earthquake struck in April. Salauddin’s working day is 16 hours, for which he is paid around 1,000 Qatar Riyals (around US$285) a month. Even in lawless India, 16 hours would be considered excessive though, of course, he wouldn’t earn so much. Rangan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, migrated to Qatar in 2006 during the civil war. The war-torn economy and failed agriculture left him with no choice. He earns 600 Qatari riyals (about US$170) as a janitor. He hasn’t had an increment in all these years. “My pay has only increased by a few riyals,” he claims. He’s accompanied by Stephen, a Kenyan, who says he paid a big amount to an agent to get a job. To make things worse, he has not been paid the promised salary, he complains.

It’s not an infrequent complaint. Indeed many migrant workers face serious problems with non-payment of salaries.

There’s no one they can turn to either, apart from their employer who is the cause of the delay in the first place. Prolonged delays or non-payment are not only abuses in themselves but leaves workers unable to pay for food or send money home. In addition, they have almost invariably taken loans at high interest to pay agents up front. So the impact of late payment or non-payment is devastating for these workers. Most labour camps are on the outskirts of Doha, a few almost 50 km away. At first sight, a camp looks like a scene of effortless integration. There’s a busy market, a mosque, a large Pakistani mess, a big kitchen, volleyball court, a clinic, a browsing centre and a row of bunker rooms. There’s a great bustle on Fridays as people get ready for the noon prayer and a few others to go to Doha to send money to their families.

A group of men is busy playing video games and listening to Hindi songs. Soudakar hails from Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari District. He is about to return just weeks after recruitment.

Casual labourer

Soudakar was promised a job as a civil engineer but was made to work as a casual labourer. The job was supposed to be in Doha city but he found himself working in a remote place bordering Saudi Arabia.

“We have to wake up at 2.30 a.m. and slave more than 13 hours. If we take a day’s leave, they deduct two days’ salary. If it’s three days, then you lose a week’s salary. Around 16 of us were in a 4x4 room in a camp some 45 km from Doha. Migrants are forced to work excessive long hours and are subject to unlawful wage deductions if they miss work.”

Another sore point migrants may face is that the job rarely fits the promise made at the time of recruitment. An experienced driver might find himself working as a janitor even though he was promised something else while signing the contract.

Every migrant worker in Qatar needs a “sponsor” who must also be his employer. Workers cannot change jobs without the sponsor’s permission. They cannot leave the country as the sponsor holds their passports. “So you have to work like a dog here to make money, right? No, no, not like a dog, like the devil,” says Mufareesh, a Sri Lankan national who works as a supervisor in Doha. “Our home countries as well the country in which we work benefit financially from our labour and the remittances we send home,” he continues.“It’s a pity they can’t see we’re human beings like them. Our governments see just an ATM when they look at us,” he concludes.

Fountain Ink

 

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