Two years before World Cup Qatar still ‘not paying migrant workers properly’

Khalifa International Stadium, Doha. Credit: Noushad Thekkayil / Shutterstock.com

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup migrant workers in Qatar are still not being paid properly, Human Rights Watch said in a report today.

HRW said despite a handful of reforms in recent years, withheld and unpaid salaries, as well as other wage abuses, are persistent and widespread across at least 60 employers and companies in Qatar.

The report shows that employers across Qatar frequently violate workers’ right to wages and that Qatar has failed to meet its 2017 commitment to the International Labour Organization (ILO) to protect migrant workers from wage abuses and to abolish the kafala system, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers.

Human Rights Watch found case after case of wage abuse across various occupations including security guards, servers, baristas, bouncers, cleaners, management staff and construction workers.

“Ten years since Qatar won the right to host the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup 2022, migrant workers are still facing delayed, unpaid, and deducted wages,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We have heard of workers starving due to delayed wages, indebted workers toiling in Qatar only to get underpaid wages, and workers trapped in abusive working conditions due to fear of retaliation.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 93 migrant workers working for more than 60 companies or employers and reviewed legal documents and reports for the report.

Qatar is dependent on two million migrant workers, making up about 95 percent of its total labour force. Many are building or servicing the stadiums, transportation, hotels, and infrastructure for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2022.

  • Fifty-nine workers said their wages had been delayed, withheld, or not paid.
  • Nine workers said they had not been paid because employers said they didn’t have enough clients.
  • 55 said they weren’t paid for overtime even though they worked more than 10 hours a day.
  • 13 said their employers had replaced their original employment contract with one favouring employers.
  • 20 said they didn’t receive mandatory end-of-service benefits.
  • And 12 said employers made arbitrary deductions from their salaries.

Wage abuses have been further exacerbated since COVID 19. Some employers used the pandemic as pretext to withhold wages or refuse to pay outstanding wages to workers who are detained and forcibly repatriated. Some workers said they could not even afford to buy food. Others said they went into debt to survive.

Human Rights Watch found that the kafala system was one of the factors facilitating abuse. In 2017, Qatar promised to abolish the kafala system, and while the introduction of some measures has chipped away at it, the system still grants employers unchecked power and control over migrant workers.

Wage abuses are also driven by deceptive recruitment practices both in Qatar and in the workers’ home countries that require them to pay between about US$700 and $2,600 to secure jobs in Qatar. By the time workers arrive in Qatar, they are already indebted and trapped in jobs that often pay less than promised.

Human Rights Watch found that 72 of the workers interviewed had taken loans to pay recruitment fees. Business practices, including the so-called “pay when paid” clause, worsen the wage abuse. These practices allow subcontractors that have not been paid to delay payments to workers.

To tackle wage abuse, the Qatari government created the Wage Protection System (WPS) in 2015, Labour Dispute Resolution Committees in 2017, and the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund in 2018.

But Human Rights Watch found that the WPS can be better described as a wage monitoring system with significant gaps in its oversight capacity. Employers frequently take away workers’ ATM cards, which are supposed to be used by workers to draw their wages.

Similarly, taking wage abuse cases to the committees can be difficult, costly, time-consuming, and ineffective, and workers fear retaliation by employers. And the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund – meant to ensure that workers are paid when companies cannot pay – only became operational earlier this year.

In October 2019, the government announced significant reforms that would establish a non-discriminatory minimum wage for all migrant workers in Qatar and allow them to change or leave their jobs without employer consent. However, other elements of the system that can leave employers with some control over their workers appear slated to remain. The reforms were expected to be rolled out in January 2020.

‘Misleading report’

The Government Communications Office of the State of Qatar said that Human Rights Watch had intentionally misled readers while performing a disservice to those they claim to be assisting.

They said: “The current report contains repeated inaccuracies around policies and does not reflect the current situation in Qatar. Nearly all individuals who come to Qatar for employment never experience any form of wage abuse. There are a few, isolated, instances where workers experience this issue. These cases have declined as laws and regulations have driven fundamental and lasting change.

“Human Rights Watch reached out to the government only prior to the publication of the report. We never heard about these issues in real time or in any of our engagement with them. If notice had taken place earlier, the government would have worked to address the issues raised by the workers interviewed in the report. A backward-looking annual report does little to address the specific challenges raised by the workers.

“Going forward, the government is available to work collaboratively with Human Rights Watch when they have issues related to wage abuse or any other employment concern, as we do with other NGOs.

“The recommendations put forward in the report by Human Rights Watch are already being implemented or on track to begin implementation. This includes laws that remove No-Objection Certificates and the introduction of a minimum wage – the first of its kind in the Middle East. Currently, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization, upgrades are being made to the Wage Protection System and the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund.

“Qatar’s labour programme protects all workers in all stages of their employment cycle. The success of our approach is evident in the achievements we have made to date and the positive impact it is having on hundreds of thousands of workers and those reliant on their income.”

And FIFA said: “FIFA has a zero-tolerance policy to any form of discrimination and to wage abuse. Through our work to protect the rights of FIFA World Cup workers in Qatar, FIFA is aware of the importance of wage protection measures in the country and this is why FIFA and the other tournament organisers have put in place robust systems to prevent and mitigate wage abuse on FIFA World Cup sites, as well as mechanisms for workers to raise potential grievances and practices to provide for remediation where companies fail to live up to our standards.”

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