Doha, Qatar – Mewa Singh is a 50-year-old labourer from the Indian state of Punjab.
“I was the sole bread earner for the family. The money wasn’t enough,” Singh told Al Jazeera while cutting wire ropes at the under-construction Lusail Stadium, the venue for the 2022 World Cup final, just outside Qatar’s capital, Doha.
But before leaving India, Singh was told to pay INR 60,000 (then $1,363) to the agent who helped him land a construction job in Qatar. That amount is the equivalent of how much Singh would have earned in a year at that time.
Singh is one of almost 20 million low-skilled workers in the Gulf. A huge number of them paid agents varying sums of money to get a job in the region. Laws in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain now forbid these “recruitment costs” being levied on workers but that has not stopped agents from charging it in the labourers’ country of origin.
“This [unauthorised fee] is a global issue. The lowest-skilled, low-income workers pay for it. These workers are the most vulnerable and desperate. In this region, they form the bulk of the workforce,” said Ray Jureidini, current research professor on migrant worker rights, violations and reform in the Middle East at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha.
“We’re talking mainly Asian countries and increasingly from Africa now. There’s a culture that exists in the countries of origin that if you want a job in the Gulf or elsewhere, you have to pay.”
While the sums vary, workers from Bangladesh would generally pay more to get a job in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region than others, according to research done by Jureidni.
Some workers that Jureidni spoke to said they had paid $3,300. Others shelled out up to $10,000.
“They take loans from banks, borrow from others, including friends and family. That puts them in debt even before they start earning,” Jureidni said. “Workers are trapped in this cycle of debt and end up in forced labour.”
These excessive payments, coupled with other recruitment–related abuses, significantly reduce the amount of money that migrant low-skilled workers are able to spend in the host country or remit home, according to an International Labour Organization report.
Why do recruitment fees exist?
With high demand for migrant labour workers in the Gulf, especially in the construction sector, competition among agencies providing the workforce is fierce. In order to minimise expenses, the contractors omit recruitment costs from the tender when they bid.
“If an employer is not prepared to pay, it ends up being the workers who pay,” said Jureidini, adding that recruitment agencies, in order to land contracts, offer so-called “incentives” and payments – a trend that exists globally.
“They’ll offer companies money to give them that contract. This is where all the unethical and fraudulent practice occurs. On average, the amount of money going into these payments to employees and companies is around $1,000 per worker.
“With almost 20 million workers in the region, this industry is worth $20bn in fraudulent transactions.”
Seven years ago, Mithunja Pathak paid INR 53,000 (then $1,040) to an agent in India who promised him a carpentry job in Qatar. As happened with many others, Pathak was instructed to quote a smaller figure if asked after arriving in Qatar.
“I paid the whole amount up front,” said Pathak. “Almost everyone does that. There’s no other choice.”
Still, there are companies that, even reluctantly, will adhere to ethical practices – not charging recruitment fees and delivering on the contracts that the workers were promised. But, they want a “level playing field”.
“They are in a competitive situation,” said Jureidni. “They say if they are to compete against a company not paying recruitment cost, they will be at a disadvantage and won’t be able to underbid them.”
With almost 20 million workers in the region, this industry is worth $20bn in fraudulent transactions
Daniel Gathuru paid approximately 120,000 Kenyan shilling ($1,190) to his agent to land him a construction job at a World Cup site in Qatar just under two years ago. When he arrived in Doha from Nairobi, he realised he didn’t have to pay anything.
“The guys back home conned us. The company had told the agency that nobody should pay to come here. We didn’t know that then. Now all we can do is tell others,” said Gathuru, his voice devoid of emotion.
Additionally, since it is cash swapping hands between the workers and agents, there is no proof the labourers can give to their companies of the fraud that is omnipresent and widespread in their country of origin.
A 2014 study by the ILO concluded that worker-paid migration costs can be as high as a third of what low-skilled workers will earn in two or three years abroad in certain migration corridors.
Late last year, a number of contractors working for Qatar 2022 launched an initiative to partially reimburse workers assigned to some World Cup projects.
Selected contractors signed up with the tournament’s organisers and agreed to pay an additional monthly amount “towards any hardship they may have gone through when they were coming to Qatar”.
“We now have 41 companies in total that have agreed with the reimbursement project,” said Mahmoud Qutub, director of the Worker’s Welfare Division for Qatar 2022. “The amount will vary – from QAR 50 to 150 ($13.7 to $41.1) per month – but at least the contractors have realised the issue and the need to do something.”
This reimbursement amounts to an average of QAR 2,401 ($658) over the course of two years.
Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary-general of the World Cup 2022 organising committee, said it was the organisation’s belief that “this World Cup can be a catalyst for change, both in Qatar and in other parts of the world”.
“Unethical recruitment is a global issue and an area many countries struggle to manage. All too often, the very people who have left their home to provide for their families are the ones exploited,” said al-Thawadi.
A representative from HBK, one of the contractors for the Lusail Stadium site and a participant in the initiative, said the amount will be paid to all its workers following a probation period, “regardless of whether they paid anything to an agent or not and they will continue receiving it as long as they’re working for HBK”.
While the number of beneficiaries is low – the scheme only covers 20 percent of the workforce over the next two years, according to Qutub – the initiative has been hailed as an effective first step to help workers who are often helpless on this issue after arriving in a new country.
For Gathuru, the extra cash will go towards paying back those he borrowed from to pay the agent.
Pathak is happy he will be able to send extra money home.
But for Singh, who is still on probation, this “small amount” will do little to “make a difference” in his life.