For Qatar's foreign workers, protesting can lead to deportation
As Qatar prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in November, the country is once again drawing criticism from human rights organisations. For several months, a construction company's workers have been protesting to claim unpaid wages. But on August 14, the Qatari government arrested some of them and deported them.
At least 60 workers employed by construction company Al Bandary – some of whom had not been paid for up to seven months – blocked traffic in front of the company headquarters in Doha on August 14.
The demonstration was organised as part of the #PayUpFIFA campaign, which fights for workers' unpaid wages.
The Qatari government told AFP that "a number of protesters were arrested for violating public security laws", adding that "a minority of people who did not demonstrate peacefully and acted in violation of public security laws face deportation by court order". The Qatari government had also stated that it would pay all the employees' salaries.
Our Observer Nimroud (not his real name), who works as a security guard, visited the building where the workers of Al Bandary were staying in Al Mukaynis municipality on August 28 – but it was empty.
The building that housed the Al Bandary workers was completely deserted. There was no one there. The rooms were turned upside down. They left their clothes, there were mattresses, overturned bedsprings, kitchen utensils, etc.
'Those from Arab countries and Bangladesh told us they have not yet been paid'
Mustafa Qadri is the founder of the British migrant workers' rights NGO Equidem, which reported the Al Bandary workers' arrest on August 23.
What we know for sure is that more than 60 workers have been arrested. Some workers we are in contact with have told us that there are many more: between 270 and 300.
However, we do not know if they have all left the country. Nor do we know how many of the workers who were arrested are still in detention.
I am in contact with deported Nepalese workers and they have told me that all of their compatriots have finally received their full unpaid wages and that they have all been deported.
However, those from Arab countries and Bangladesh told us they have not yet been paid.
On Sunday [August 28], a worker also told us that workers from Arab countries were still in detention. But we don't know how many. The Qatari government does not give out this kind of information.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was unable to get in contact with the Qatar Ministry of Labour and the Al Bandary company.
The August 14 demonstration was in fact the culmination of a protest movement organised by Al Bandary employees, which began in March and continued for several months, as shown in videos posted on TikTok.
In the video below, workers are seen gathered on the side of the road outside Doha.
@warisjoyajishan @nitishgupta891 @azad0984 @rajnepali232 @zubairnepali @firdosh.ansari2014 ♬ original sound - WarisJoyaJishanChotu
@warisjoyajishan @firdosh.ansari2014 @zubairnepali @rajnepali232 @mujahidansari708 ♬ original sound - WarisJoyaJishanChotu
The case of the Al Bandary group is by no means isolated. Several Qatari construction companies have been accused of overdue wages for several months. This video shows, for example, a protest by workers of the MCC Mestalla Construction company.
This other video shows a strike by workers at JH Construction in March. They claimed that they had not been paid since September 2021.
And in the video below, employees of the company Redco International are protesting.
Qadri told us that it isn't uncommon for workers to have unpaid wages:
The Al Bandary workers' strike received media attention because they protested in central Doha on August 14. But protests are common outside the city centre, they usually take place in the industrial area. And this is a major concern.
During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, we saw that many workers did not receive their salaries for several months.
And this was already a problem before 2020. It is very difficult to know how many companies have not paid salaries, and how many employees are not paid. The Qatari government does not provide this kind of information.
The state has made a commitment to ensure that workers are paid for the work they do.
In October 2018, Qatar established the Workers' Support and Insurance Fund to pay workers who have not been paid by their employers within a reduced timeframe. Marco Minocri, the International Labour Organisation's communications officer for Qatar, said he regrets the slow pace of compensation procedures:
Since its creation in 2018 until July 2022, the fund has compensated more than 37,000 workers from different sectors of the economy, to the tune of more than $160 million. Some have since returned home, others have changed jobs.
But the procedures are still not working effectively, which is why there are still many workers waiting for compensation. The delays are also partly due to Covid-19, because during the pandemic there was an increase in complaints and the labour courts could not meet to consider the complaints.
So it's not working at the desired speed, there are a lot of delays. This is problematic because many migrant workers, especially low-wage workers, send between 80% and 90% of their wages back home. So when there are delays in wages, it has a big impact on their families.
The reason for the unpaid salaries remains unclear. Minocri continued:
Sometimes a company goes bankrupt and does not pay its employees. In the construction sector, there are many layers of subcontractors [in Gulf countries]. When these companies don't get the money from the main contractor, they are not able to pay their employees.
Mustafa Qadri of the NGO Equidem is concerned that workers are still denied trade union rights:
There is a real concern that these workers are being punished, detained and deported to their countries. So we have a country where workers are criminalised for simply organising to demand their rights.
Qatar should punish the companies, which do this. And there must be much more transparency.
Qatar has signed and ratified key human and labour rights documents, including the Forced Labour Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It therefore has strict international legal obligations to combat these practices.
Ironically, many of the footballers who will be participating in this World Cup are union members. But the workers who are making this World Cup possible are not [Editor's note: unions are not authorised in Qatar]. I don't know of a more striking representation of inequality and discrimination.
There is no precise data on the number of foreign workers in Qatar, nor on deportations. There are more than two million foreign workers in the emirate, representing about 95% of its total workforce. About one million workers are employed in the construction sector.
Numerous NGOs have regularly denounced dangerous working conditions, including intense heat, falls and heart failure, particularly on the construction sites linked to the building of stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. In February 2021, The Guardian reported that more than 6,500 migrant workers had died on stadium construction sites in Qatar since 2010, due to extreme working conditions.