How coronavirus shutdown affected Qatar's migrant workers

Despite the government's stimulus package, migrant workers employed by private companies are struggling to survive.

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    How coronavirus shutdown affected Qatar's migrant workers
    Qatar's malls have been shut except for supermarkets and pharmacies [Al Jazeera]

    Doha, Qatar - Jobless and literally penniless, Ana, a migrant worker, fears for her and her family's future while sitting in a tiny rented room in Qatar's northeastern city of Al Khor.

    She has not been paid since February. Up until May, Ana was working in a restaurant, which, like thousands of other businesses across Qatar, felt the brunt of government-enforced coronavirus-related restrictions.

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    While food deliveries continued, the staff was asked to work without pay. She complied until she could take it no more.

    "Together with some colleagues, we asked for our salary and refused to work if we weren't paid. We can't work without money. We're here to earn a living," Ana told Al Jazeera.

    Her manager told her he was not able to pay her.

    Ana and her three colleagues were later transferred from company accommodation in the capital, Doha, to the shared room in a private house in Al Khor. They were told they would need to pay rent from June onwards. 

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    She said their salary remains unpaid and some colleagues had a false absconding case filed against them.

    "We were thrown out here. We don't have money for food, for rent, for anything. I'm tired. I just want this to end. I came here to work but all I want to do now is to go back home to my family and away from all this."

    Ana and her colleagues are not the only ones who find themselves in this situation.

    In the southern town of Wukair, about 250 staff of a cleaning company are without work and any assistance since March. They rely on food donations and are scared of complaining to the labour ministry for fear of reprisals from their employer.

    "It's easy to talk but we're careful because 250-plus people might lose their jobs if we complain or tell anyone about the situation," one staff member told Al Jazeera.

    Al Jazeera spoke to numerous affected migrant workers, including driving instructors, salon staff, baristas, chefs, private taxi drivers, small business owners, and hotel and hospitality staff.

    Most of them have not received any assistance from their employers and are afraid of complaining.

    'No money to pay the bills'

    In Doha, a group of kindergarten teachers has been unable to pay electric bills because of the non-payment of salaries for the last three months. The landlord has now cut off their electricity.

    "We have messaged the Philippine Overseas Labour Office [POLO] but they are not responding," one of the residents told Al Jazeera. "We don't have the money to pay the bills."

    Al Jazeera contacted POLO in Qatar whose staff asked the request to be redirected to the Philippine embassy, which did not respond.

    Qatar's labour ministry also did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment but the country's Government Communications Office (GCO) said, "The government has put measures in place to guarantee salaries are paid on schedule and in full."

    "Between March 12 and June 2, 86 percent of complaints have been resolved, with outstanding cases currently under review," the GCO said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.

    "Over 12,000 inspections have been carried out at workplaces and accommodation sites to confirm that companies are implementing all COVID-19 precautionary measures. There is no excuse for any company to violate Qatar's labour laws, including late payment of salaries." 

    Babelyn has been "without work, without pay" along with her colleagues since March. They are living in a company-provided accommodation. Their employer gave them only a one-time food allowance of 200 riyals ($55).

    "It's not enough. No work, no salary, and we can't send money back home to our families," Babelyn told Al Jazeera.

    Babelyn agreed to go back to the Philippines. However, in violation of her contract, her employer is refusing to pay the end-of-service benefit or the one-way flight.

    However, repatriation should be the last resort and extra efforts should be made to secure business continuity and employment and workers' incomes, said Houtan Homayounpour, head of the International Labor Organization project office for Qatar.

    "Where this is not possible, workers should receive their due wages and benefits and repatriation flights from the employer," Homayounpour told Al Jazeera.

    "The government has also clearly communicated that employers are required to continue to ensure workers have access to decent food and accommodation. This is not negotiable," he added. 

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    Qatar's government said it encourages workers to lodge their complaints with the ministry via a phone call, text or email.

    However, to encourage workers to cast their fears aside and come forward to complain - and to ensure compliance on the employers' part - the government needs to "name and shame businesses" and "remove or reform absconding laws", according to Vani Saraswathi, director of projects at Migrant-Rights.Org.

    "Under the Kafala system, the buck stops with the employer. But the government has to be held accountable for continuing with that kind of immigration regime where you've outsourced state duty to private parties," Saraswathi told Al Jazeera.

    "The fact that residence and working visas are linked and connected to an individual gives them inordinate powers.

    "If the government chooses to allow private parties to manage migration, it should at the very least hold private parties to high standards, monitor them closely, and penalise those who violate rights."

    The GCO said businesses that ceased services following government instructions were ordered to pay "basic salary and allowances". Additionally, "in cases where work contracts have been terminated, employers must continue to provide food and housing free of charge until the employee can be repatriated at the employer's expense".

    Qatar's stimulus package

    Liza has been out of work for more than two months and said her employer has put her on forced leave for the next four months. Her husband's salary was significantly reduced and now it is not enough to pay rent, cover expenses, and look after their one-year-old daughter. Her manager told her the company had no money to pay staff.

    The government introduced a 75-billion-riyal ($20.6bn) stimulus package to help companies continue operations and retain jobs, including those in "financial difficulty to pay salaries and rent".

    But Saraswathi said more needed to be done by the government at the outset.

    "When visas are allocated for companies, is the government doing its due diligence on whether the company is financially sound, if its business plan is sustainable, and if it has the resources to weather small economic crises. More importantly, do they really need to hire so many workers?" said Saraswathi.

    On Monday, Qatar announced the gradual lifting of coronavirus restrictions from June 15.

    But even when those are eased, "saving jobs and restarting businesses will require significant adjustments with cost implications", ILO's Homayounpour said, adding "smaller businesses especially will need ongoing support to ensure that the reopening of workplaces occurs with safeguards for the safety of workers and consumers alike". 

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    For Abdul Sattar and his colleagues, all of whom work at a tailor shop in Doha's Old Airport area, an end of the restrictions cannot come soon enough.

    The group was forced to lock down in March. With no other means of livelihood, they are struggling to pay for food and unable to pay rent.

    "We have nothing in the house and the rent and bills keep adding up," Sattar told Al Jazeera. "I don't think we'll be able to survive for long."

    Workers' names have been changed to protect identities. None of the workers wanted to name their businesses for fear of reprisal but some have reported them to Qatar's labour ministry.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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