SVENSKA DAGBLADET IN QATAR
Seven months. He must stay another seven months in Doha and work 16 hours a day for 1,000 Qatari riyal (around €110). He has been here for 17 months and is longing to go back to his family in Nepal. But in order to be able to return he must have an exit visa with the approval of his employer. When his two-year contract ends he will get one.
In seven months. He is a painter and is careful about every riyal he spends.
“Out of the 1,000 riyal I earn I send 600-700 to my family. If I am sick I try to get by without medicine because it is so expensive. I eat twice a day to save money. Breakfast is only bread.”
Darkness has fallen on the flat landscape when Svenska Dagbladet is visiting a hostel for migrant workers about two hours’ drive from the capital Doha.
The men living here receive us in their room packed with bunk beds. They are tired and will soon go to bed but now they are offering us tea and telling us about the dreams that led them to one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
**They were going **to earn big money that would give their families in Nepal better lives. The recruitment agency had promised that the salary would be raised after three months if they behaved well. But once they were in Doha things turned out to be very different.
One of the men shows two different contracts; one that he signed in his home country where the salary is 1,200 riyal (€130) a month and another that he had to sign in Doha where the salary is 200 riyal less. Our interpreter explains that the Nepalese government has set the guaranteed minimum wage to 1,200 riyal for their citizens before they go to take up work in Qatar.
These men are employed by a small company and tell us that they are often being sent to private homes for renovation work. They say it is the worst kind of work one can have.
“They treat us like animals. Many have developed kidney problems since we are not allowed to use the toilet. They usually tell us to go to the mosque but we are not always let in there because we are Hindus.”
**The builders avoid **drinking so that they will not need to go to the toilet. In the Qatar summer temperatures can rise to 50 degrees centigrade.
The man explaining this has two boys in Nepal, 11 and 14 years old. He has not seen them in 21 months but talks with them on the phone once a week. He had been working for six years in India before arriving in Qatar and says that he has never been as ill treated as in Doha.
**We are sitting **on paint cans turned upside down. A grainy TV screen is flickering in a corner of the room. Clothes have been hung on nails high up on the walls and an out-of-date air conditioner is filling the small room with a constant noise. We are having sweet tea and talking about the employers not issuing Medical Cards that give the right to medical care.
At the same time the Nepalese say that there are people in a much worse situation. They tell of employers reducing salaries for three days when someone is sick for one day only. Some of them do not pay any salary at all and retract the company ID card which effectively makes the migrant worker illegal in the country. He risks being arrested by the police and deported to his home country without the salary he is due.
Svenska Dagbladet is travelling to Qatar as part of the Swedish delegation of the global union BWI, Building and Wood Workers’ International. Johan Lindholm, chairman of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union, was here a year ago and now he is back to check if the regime has fulfilled its promises to ameliorate living conditions and wage standards.
The pressure has been hard on Qatar ever since the announcement that it was to host the Football World Cup in 2022. Last year The Guardian disclosed widespread poor conditions and the fact that dozens of builders had died within a few summer weeks. That put the searchlight on the oil-rich Gulf state. According to an estimate by ITUC (The International Trade Union Confederation) 4,000 building workers are liable to die before the football extravaganza has started if conditions are not improved.
However the Nepalese embassy in Doha has no opinion about that. Last year 185 last winter coffins with dead workers were sent to Nepal. At that time 382 Nepalese had died in Qatar since 2012. Staff at the embassy says that they help with the transport and see to that the family in the home country receive damages or wages, if possible. But for most deaths natural causes are stated, such as heart failure, and in those cases no autopsy is conducted and no damages are paid.
Last winter there was information from the Indian embassy about 20 Indian workers having died every month in Qatar. Around 500 deaths had been registered in 2012 and 2013. When the BWI delegation asks questions concerning this, the answer is that there are more than a billion people in India.
**For a long **time now Qatar has been promising better conditions for the migrant workers. In February this year an action plan was introduced with fixed standards for wages and hostel. The inspections on the building sites were to be more severe and misbehaving contractors punished. A few months later The Guardian revealed that those building the office for the World Cup Organisation Committee in the skyscraper al Bidda in Doha had not been paid for more than a year and were forced to live in quarters infested with cockroaches.
For seven more months this man in his 20s, who misses his family in Nepal, will rise at dawn six days a week and catch the bus to flashy Doha which is light years apart from his world.
“When I leave Doha I never want to come back”
**Migrant worker in Doha, Qatar. **
**He did not **know what was awaiting him when he signed that contract in the recruitment office in Nepal. Now he regrets it and wishes he could turn back time.
“When I leave Doha I never want to come back”, he says.
BWI has set up a meeting with the Qatari Department of Labour. The gentlemen we meet are offering different kinds of hot tea in small glass cups. With a small sign of the hand one of them signals to the servant to first attend to us who have come here to ask questions. Three out of the four men sitting in front of us are wearing the traditional white full-length male robe. Starched collars and serious cufflinks contrast with the sandals on their bare feet.
**They start by **saying that they are not perfect but that improvements have been made. Salaries are being paid on time into bank accounts, the number of building inspectors has been increased and migrant workers can nowadays file complaints themselves with the authorities through a machine where all facts are written in and automatically transferred for investigation. One can also file complaints on the phone, they say.
But what raises our eyebrows is the message that the much-criticised system called “kafala” will be revised. It places the workers entirely in the hands of the employers. They are not allowed to change jobs without permission and they cannot travel home without an exit visa signed by the employer. Now the people at the Ministry of Labour say that they want to have a “contract system” instead.
New laws will be put forward early next year. Exit visas will be automatically granted and migrant workers will be allowed to change jobs without the employer’s consent.
On the day after the meeting at the Department the BWI has summoned migrant workers to a secret meeting in a restaurant. Not one of those present has ever heard of a complaint machine and the vast majority of those we meet get their pay directly in their hands.
The bearded carpenter from India says that he has only one dream, to see his family happy. After 35 years in Qatar this dream has not yet come true.
“When I came here I was a young man. I was single at the time. Now I have three children, two sons and a daughter. One of my sons is already working in Dubai and the other will soon be going there,” he says.
The man, who is in his 60s, tells us that he goes home to his family once a year or every other year, staying for a month before it is time to return to Qatar. He gives a short laugh when being asked when he will be retiring.
“I cannot stop working yet. I must save for some years more before I reach my goals,” he says with a smile under his moustache.
As darkness falls we go to yet another hostel in an area where 75,000 migrant workers live. Buses are parked everywhere, waiting to set off at dawn to the many building sites in Doha.
The stench hits us like a wall as we enter the building. The narrow corridor is full of shoes and on the other side of those doors men are sleeping in their bunk beds, eight people to each room. They sleep on thin mattresses. Clothes are hanging everywhere and the space between the beds and the floor is filled with food.
Our guide is telling us that we are in a hurry and must leave. Another group from the BWI had been visiting another hostel where the workers had not been paid for seven months. Their work permits had been withdrawn and they were not allowed to leave the hostel because then they risked being deported by the police. As they realised how vulnerable these migrant workers are, a foreman appears threatening to call the police, which could have very serious consequences for our guides and for the migrant workers themselves.
For seven more months the man in his 20s must lie sleepless at night thinking of his family in Nepal. Now he is cooking a meal. Potatoes and onions have been strewn over the floor. A fish dish is in a pot. He shows us the kitchen where sooty pots are simmering on a worn-down gas cooker. He tells us that he sleeps four to five hours a night at most.
**“It usually takes **a long time for me to fall asleep. I lie there thinking of my parents and my brothers. I miss them.”
Beside his bed, on a piece of cardboard covering the hole where a window once was, there are pictures of beautiful, smiling women. And above the picture of Janet Jackson hangs a cutting. It has a picture of a dachshund and the message “Reward: 5,000 riyal”.
Everybody in the house is looking for the dog.
The man in his 20s is smiling broadly when I ask about the ad.
“That is five months’ pay. Who knows, maybe I’ll be lucky.”
Translation: Lars Ryding.