The Covid-19 pandemic left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar extremely vulnerable as companies withheld pay, stopped providing basic necessities and dismissed workers with little warning, a new study found.
Despite Qatar passing laws aimed at safeguarding the rights of migrant workers, who make up about 90 per cent of the population on the small peninsular nation, the rules are not being followed, according to the Equidem report, based on interviews with workers in the region.
“Evidence gathered for this research shows that companies large and small and across industries are not complying with this directive,” the report said.
“With limitations on the state’s capacity to enforce rights protections and limited access to justice, many migrant workers are in an extremely vulnerable position with no real ability to assert their rights or seek remedy for violations,” the report said.
During the pandemic, the government allocated $824 million in loans to help companies pay employees who are quarantined or undergoing treatment. Despite this, the surveys found that salary cuts and companies withholding pay was commonplace.
“Many migrant workers have no idea if, when or how much they will be paid by their employees.”
Qatar recorded 138,000 cases of Covid-19, 237 deaths and has one of the highest rates of infection per capita anywhere in the world.
The first case was recorded in Qatar on February 27 and it entered lockdown in March. It has since started opening up the country but retained strict rules around social distancing, travel into and out of the country and enforcing mask wearing.
Chetan, an Indian citizen who works as a carpenter in Qatar, described how he had his pay stopped during the pandemic.
“The company stopped paying our salary after the lockdown started. My boss said the company was losing money and could not afford to pay our salary. I did not even get an end-of-service settlement,” he told Equidem.
The researchers interviewed dozens of workers from companies across the country who said they were fired but had not received their end-of-service payout.
“There were 25 other workers with me when I got fired. There are hundreds of us who haven’t received any payment from the company. We all returned to our home [countries]. We had to buy our own plane tickets,” Chetan said.
Some workers were less fortunate and could not even afford to fly home.
“I’ve been working with this company since 2016. I got fired five months ago because of the lockdown,” said Karan, a duct installer.
“The company said it was going into closure. I am in a lot of financial trouble. I’ve spent all my savings to pay the rent. I had to move to a charity organisation, which is giving me a place to stay for free. I cannot go back to India because I don’t have a single riyal left to pay for an airfare and I’ve still to get my end-of-service settlement.”
Workers were made homeless as businesses closed during the lockdown. Shekhar, who works in a cafe in Al Wakrah, said his employer evicted him and his colleagues.
“The owner informed us that the cafe is going to be closed permanently. We told the recruitment agent in Doha and asked them either to find us another job or arrange for us to go home. By then, the flights were already stopped [because of the pandemic]. The recruiter suggested we wait until they find another job for us. One day in the morning, it was Friday, we were told to vacate our accommodation and were left homeless,” he sad.
Those in labour camps also said they went without food for periods of time even though authorities said they were distributing provisions and saying that companies were still required to provide food even if staff were not working as a result of the lockdown.
Jack, a security guard from Kenya, spoke of his experience during the three-month period of lockdown in the industrial area of Doha.
"There was a total lockdown in the labour camps, all the staff were barred from leaving except on medical grounds. We got food rations provided irregularly by the camp authorities and security personnel ... and from 17 March [when the government announced the lockdown] we had to make do with minimal rations," he said.
The report looked at the effect of the pandemic on workers in Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia and found significant increases in redundancies, terminations and salary cuts as economies were hit by lockdowns and a drop in spending because of the virus.