Desperate lives in Qatar’s labour camps

Doha, Qatar — In a dusty street on the shabby outskirts of Doha, men crowd around makeshift stalls selling pallid fruit and withered vegetables.

It is a blazing hot Friday morning and conversations in Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Nepali intermingle as Qatar’s migrant labourers take advantage of their only free time of the week to shop for groceries, meet friends and rest aching bodies after 70-hour-plus working weeks on the ubiquitous construction sites of the ambitious Gulf state.

The Industrial Area, where many of the crowded labour camps accommodating this ever-expanding workforce are located, is a few miles and a far cry from the glass, steel and gaudy neon seafront towers that have become the airbrushed postcard image of Qatar’s gas boom-fuelled transformation into one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential nations.

Broken mechanical machinery, smashed-up vehicles, pot-holed roads, fetid rubbish heaps and piles of rubble as high as the surrounding low-rise dormitory buildings, ringed by washing lines of faded blue overalls, give this dense grid of streets the feel of a place where the human spirit has also been crushed.

‘We are so poor we don’t have any other option’

Hassain, a Bangladeshi, earns just 700 riyals (£119) a month as a carpenter, even after six years in Qatar, a country often dubbed the richest in the world with a GDP per capita last year of 378,320 riyals (£64,300). To earn that much, Hassain would have to work for more than 45 years.

He spends 600 riyals a month on food and telephone calls to his family, supplementing his salary illicitly on Fridays by selling bags of onions to fellow workers. What little money is left he sends home to his wife and 15-year-old daughter.

Like most workers, Hassain’s job was arranged by an agent, a service for which he paid 250,000 Bangaldeshi taka (£1,984). “The agent didn’t tell me about the salary. He arranged everything and he took the money,” he says. “But we are so poor we don’t have any other option.”

Naushad, also from Bangladesh, tells a similar story. He says most workers from the country have paid up to 300,000 taka (£2,383), usually borrowed from a lender or secured against mortgaged family land, in return for jobs in Qatar paying about 600 to 700 riyals a month.

Typically they go to the Gulf on two-year contracts, which effectively means they spend the first year clearing their debts and can only begin to save money in the second year. Agents often lie about the job, the working conditions and the salary awaiting their clients, but by the time they find out it is too late.

Qatar’s kafala migrant sponsorship system means workers need permission from their employer to leave the country or change jobs, while most have their passports and residency cards confiscated, despite Qatari law banning this practice. Many also have wages withheld for months to discourage them from complaining or running away.

Naushad says workers from Bangladesh, a country where the World Bank says 73 million people live in extreme poverty or poverty, earn less than Indians employed in the same roles. “Most people just want to get out of Bangladesh because it is so poor. The basically get duped by the middle men.”

As well as supporting a wife and four children, Naushad says the money he sends home is shared between his parents, three brothers and two sisters. “I feel under a lot of pressure because of the responsibility. There are a lot of people dependent on me.”

The plight of Qatar’s migrant workforce is under fresh scrutiny following reports in the Guardian about working conditions which the British newspaper said amounted to “modern-day slavery” as defined by the International Labour Organisation.

The newspaper cited Nepalese embassy documents recording the deaths of at least 44 migrants from the Himalayan country in Qatar between June and August, with many suffering fatal heart attacks, or dying as a consequence of workplace accidents.

Subsequent reports, citing embassy officials, put the death toll of Nepalese workers on construction sites since the beginning of 2012 at 70. Like Bangladesh, Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries and exports hundreds of thousands of workers from poorly educated and poverty-stricken backgrounds to the Gulf.

The Guardian also uncovered evidence of inhumane conditions on some construction sites, with workers forced to work through the day, sometimes without access to water, even in midsummer when temperatures can top 50 degrees Celsius.

That has raised concerns among human rights and labour rights organisations that the forthcoming stadium-building programme and accompanying infrastructure projects planned for the 2022 World Cup could result in thousands more worker deaths unless construction industry conditions in Qatar are brought in line with the best international standards.

Yet, while Qatar’s World Cup organising committee declared itself “appalled” by the Guardian’s findings, no one who has spent any time in the country in recent years could convincingly claim to have been shocked or surprised.

Many of the concerns about worker rights and workplace safety raised by the Guardian mirrored those highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report published and widely reported in June 2012.

The exploitation of migrant workers hardly happens hidden from view, but rather on building sites interspersed between luxury residential developments, exclusive hotels and shopping malls in the heart of Doha.

The current redevelopment of the Corniche area, and an extensive road improvements programme that has blighted the city’s already notorious traffic, means drivers and passengers can stare into the eyes of road-side labourers even as they sit in rush-hour gridlock.

While working conditions vary, most labourers work six days a week, from Saturday to Thursday. Many typically work between 10 and 12 hours a day, and most expect to put in some overtime on top of that. Some travel more than an hour each way by bus between the labour camps where they live on the fringes of Doha or beyond the city altogether and the sites where they work.

‘They don’t allow us to stand up or drink water’

Ranjit and Bhaskar, both Nepalese 19-year-olds working as electrical technicians, say they typically work from 5 am until 5 pm, earning 700 riyals per month, though they are willing to work longer for overtime.

They have been in Qatar for 11 months and say they are happy enough with their work and living conditions.

“It’s ok for us. We wanted to earn money and we are getting it,” says Ranjit. “At home it is impossible to earn any money. Nepal is beautiful but what can we do? We are helpless. I’ll stay her for three years and, hopefully, I’ll never come back.”

Manoj, an Indian approaching the end of a two-year stint in Qatar, also says he has no desire to return to the Gulf.

Working as a stone mason for 800 riyals a month, he says he is forced to work without a break for eight hours and is subjected to daily abuse by his company’s Egyptian site supervisors.

“The company is no good. The Egyptians don’t treat us well. They push us and they don’t even allow us to stand up or take rests,” he says. “If they are not around we can drink water, otherwise they don’t allow us to drink. They don’t care about safety. They just put people there to get the job done.”

For some though, there is consolation at least that their sacrifice is funding their children’s education and the prospect for them of a better life.

Maqsood has been working in the Gulf as a mason for 13 years and currently earns 700 riyals a month. The 47-year-old has five sons and one daughter and has supported all of them through English-language schooling in India, going home every two years for three months to see his family.

His eldest son, aged 19, works as a computer technician; another attends university in Delhi, and he speaks with pride of another who has memorised the Quran.

“I am only here for them. I want them to do well. I am happy because I am able to fund their education. I don’t have any savings but I manage,” he says.

Asked whether he hopes his children will one day look after him, Maqsood replies: “Even if they don’t, I don’t care. At least they will be happy.”

Despite the hardships, some say working conditions in Qatar compare favourably with their experiences in other Gulf countries.

Abdullah, from India, drives one of the buses that transport workers from the camps to the building sites, earning 1,500 riyals a month.

He says he was duped by an agent who promised him more money and better lodging and food. He complains drivers also have their wages docked if they are involved in an accident, even if they are not to blame.

But he says he prefers Qatar to Saudi Arabia, where he worked for five years. And he describes how he was forced to flee without pay just one month into a job as a family driver in Kuwait.

“My boss was a policeman and he promised me 80 dinar (£175) a month. When I got there he said I’ll only pay you 40 dinar, and then after a month he said, ‘I won’t give you anything. What will you do? I won’t send you back to India. If you create trouble I’ll send you to jail.’

“They made me clean toilets and clean the kids’ bedrooms, all kinds of work, 24 hours a day. He used to beat me. I was lucky I was able to run away.”

‘I’m living only for my children’

At a labour camp in the Industrial Area, Ahmad sits in the small bunk-bedded room that he shares with three other workers. The child-size beds are too small for men to stretch out comfortably and have thin mattresses, yet he considers himself lucky.

Other rooms of similar size sleep six to eight men and this room comes with a television and working air conditioning. A grease-stained kitchen down the corridor equipped with several rudimentary cooking hobs serves eight or nine rooms.

After 16 years in the Gulf, Ahmad says this is as good as life gets. A skilled worker, he earns 1,300 riyals a month in a fibre glass factory. He says labourers in Qatar are treated better than in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, where he has also worked, and that workplace safety has improved.

Ahmad has four children back home in India, two of whom have gone to university, including a son studying engineering. “If you have education there are opportunities. I’m living only for my children. I have no other problems. Once they are educated, finished. Job done. Their lives arranged.”

Noor, a site supervisor from India working for a European construction firm, believes many western companies in Qatar are genuinely committed to improving the working conditions of their employees. He says safety is the number one priority at his workplace and workers are provided with water, food and ice throughout the day.

But he says other companies continue to fall short of acceptable workplace standards, and that Qatari laws supposed to protect workers are simply not being effectively enforced.

Although the authorities respond when issues are raised, he says most most workers are either not aware of the law and their rights or too scared to complain. Few speak English or Arabic and so face a language barrier as well.

“The laws exist but nobody is checking what is happening,” Noor says. “If there are a hundred complaints, perhaps one single man will complain.”

At a press conference this week, Qatar’s labour minister Saleh Al Khulaifi said the government took reports of mistreatment of migrant labourers seriously and would employ additional inspectors to ensure that workers’ rights were being respected and Qatari laws enforced.

“We will not hesitate to take necessary action to protect the rights of the expatriate workforce,” he said.

And on Thursday, Hassan al-Thawadi, the head of Qatar’s 2022 supreme committee, in Switzerland to address football world governing body FIFA’s executive committee, said that improving working conditions was organisers’ top priority.

“This is not a World Cup being built on the blood of innocents. That is unacceptable to anybody and most definitely to ourselves,” he said.

Noor hopes the increased scrutiny of the country that preparations for the World Cup will bring, and an anticipated influx of hundreds of thousands more migrants to work on projects linked to the tournament, will force Qatar to finally take workers’ rights seriously in actions as well as words.

But he says reforming working conditions in Qatar and the entire Gulf region ought to be a pressing international priority, regardless of concerns surrounding a month-long football competition still the best part of a decade away.

“Maybe conditions will improve. But they are only talking about it because of the football. People have to exist here, with or without the World Cup.”