Qatar: Persian Gulf Paradise a Nightmare for Migrant Workers

ANALYSIS

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A group of workers clean Khalifa stadium in Doha
A group of workers clean Khalifa stadium in Doha

The tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar is an oasis of peace and prosperity in the volatile Middle East. While neighboring Bahrain convulsed with social unrest and a brutal government crackdown, Qatar – a gleaming, wealthy sovereign nation – has been largely untouched by the revolutions sweeping across the Arab world.

Fueled principally by large liquefied gas/energy projects and high oil prices, Qatar's real GDP surged by 19 percent in 2011, following a 17 percent expansion in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Qatar also boasts flourishing petrochemicals and fertilizers industries.

In addition, Doha plans to diversify its economy (by developing its financial services and tourism sectors) and is also slated to spend a total of $125 billion on infrastructure upgrade investments over the next five years.

The U.S. has invested tens of billions of dollars into Qatari energy ventures.

Moreover, according to reports, Qatar's current account surplus for both in 2011 and 2012 will rise above 20 percent of nominal GDP. Qatar is expected to record a fiscal surplus of 12.6% in 2011 and another even bigger surplus in 2012.

With GDP per capita of almost $80,000, Qatar is perhaps the wealthiest nation on earth (the figure for the U.S. Is about $48,000).

In addition, last year, government workers saw their salaries jump by 60 percent.

When the World Cup is held here in 2022, Qatar's crowning as a global hub of plenty will be complete.

Qatar's success is largely based on the huge influx of migrant workers who have poured into the nation in recent decades. These workers have flocked to Qatar in such numbers that native Qataris are now a minority in their own country.

Of a total population of 1.7 million, only about 390,000 are native Qataris, the remainder is foreign migrants, with the largest portion coming from India (24 percent); followed by Nepal (16 percent); Philippines (11 percent); Sri Lanka (5 percent); Bangladesh (5 percent); and Pakistan (4 percent).

Since 2001, the country's population has more than tripled in concert with a massive construction boom that has transformed a once remote desert outpost into a modern, sophisticated super-mini-state.

Qatar is a tremendous attraction for workers from poverty-stricken countries.

Dhan Baruwal, a Nepalese migrant who works as utilities supervisor on a construction site in Doha, told BBC: In Nepal, even if you find a job, you can only earn $150 a month. But here I can get $700 a month. That's why I like it.

Workers from Europe also move to Qatar in search of plentiful jobs.

Dan Pascut, a college graduate from economically fragile Romania, works as a parking valet for a luxury hotel in Doha.
For me, this is just the first step, he told BBC.

Working in a hotel chain, you get a lot of opportunities. The hotel industry offers the chance to start low, but to grow within the company and put into practice everything you have learned at university.

Pascut has no intentions of returning home to Romania.

If my contract finishes here, I'll look again for work abroad, in the U.S. maybe or here in the Middle East, he added.

Elisa Grimaldi, an Italian recruitment consultant in the energy sector, praised Qatar.

Qatar is one of the biggest gas exporters in the world, so for a professional like me it's an attractive place, she told BBC.

[Qatar] is a rich country, people are coming from right around the world to be here and there's just so much opportunity. In [Italy] I wouldn't be able to buy a house, or probably it would take me around 30 years. But here, in five years you can put together money to buy a house or a nice flat in a European city.”

Grimaldi added: “Everybody here is saving money and that's mainly because we don't pay bills. Fuel is very cheap, help at home is reasonable, and we get housing provided so we don't have to pay rent. We probably earn similar salaries to at home -- maybe a little higher -- but we don't really spend anything, so basically everything is for your pocket.

However, underneath all the glitter and gold of Qatar's huge success, lurks a very dark and disturbing underbelly.
Migrant workers from poor countries in South Asia and the Far East are underpaid, overworked, exploited and abused in Qatar.

In connection with the upcoming 2022 World Cup, many international trade unions have urged FIFA, the governing body of soccer, not to stage the tournament in Qatar, likening labor conditions in the country to “modern slavery.”

“Migrant workers in Qatar have no labor rights, wages are exploitative and occupational health and safety risks are extreme,” International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) general secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement.

Indeed, Qatar's fabulous wealth has come at a terrible price.

We asked the FIFA secretary general if they wanted their stadiums to be built by slave workers, by exploited labor, Ambet Yuson, general secretary of Building and Wood Workers International told Reuters.

Ninety-four percent of workers are migrants in Qatar. It's basically modern slavery. They are migrant workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh; they go there and their passports are withheld, sometimes they don't get paid their salaries or they are six months late and they have no other options.”

Yuson further said: It's terrible; I was there, their living quarters are really bad, it's a bad situation. FIFA said they will use leverage, because Qatar wants the World Cup. We told them it's serious and we are going to campaign. We said we want to see some action in six months.

Yuson indicated that migrant laborers are also constructing the stadiums that will hold the World Cup, and, if Qatari officials win the award, a future Olympics.

Wages are very low, there are a lot of contractual workers and there's the issue of health and safety, he stated.

FIFA itself said that it will seek to discuss labor issues in Qatar with local authorities.

However, the situation remains dire for migrant workers.

J. Ocean Dennie, writing in Digital Journal, described the plight of migrant workers in Qatar as a crisis with little hope for resolution.

“In recent years, numerous accounts have surfaced of migrant workers subjected to abuse and ill-treatment by their employers,” he wrote, including complaints of “unpaid wages, excessive working hours, heavy debt burdens from exorbitant recruitment fees, isolation and forced confinement resulting in physical and psychological abuse.”

Amnesty International reported that in 2007, 20,000 migrant workers in Qatar simply ran away from their employers.

Many migrants, fearing prosecution and deportation, don't even bother reporting the abuse they suffer.

“Laborers hired through recruitment agencies in other countries such as Bangladesh or Nepal, arrive in Qatar with very little understanding of the culture or labor rights in the country,” Dennie wrote.

“These workers usually originate from uneducated and impoverished classes, lured by desperation into working abroad in order to improve their lives and support family members back home. There is a tremendous sense of honor in accepting such employment abroad. This can be compounded by severe pride where workers frequently lie to their families about their living conditions.”

Migrants are also exploited by unscrupulous recruitment agents in their native countries who make grandiose promises, charge high fees for travel documents, often pushing the workers deeply into debt.

“Compounding such devious tactics is the frequent practice of Qatari employers who confiscate the passports of non-Qatari workers upon arrival,” Dennie stated.

“Since most of the migrant workers arriving in Qatar have never engaged in such an arrangement abroad, they are often unaware of their rights in another country or choose not to exercise them when abuses or wrongdoing takes place.”

Migrant workers have little scope to file complaints against abusive employers, given the undeveloped status of labor rights organizations in the country.

“The status of migrant workers under Qatari legislation, including both labor and human rights law is not dissimilar to the status afforded illegal aliens,” Dennie noted.

“Labor laws offer little protection because of lax enforcement, while foreign embassies of developing countries do little besides offer refuge to their nationals, for fear of jeopardizing the flow of remittances workers send to their families back home. Labor laws in these states are usually in favor of protecting the employer who is a citizen of the state rather than the foreigner who is not, which leaves the treatment and well being of these workers to the will of the employer.”

Migrants are ensnared in a nightmarish system whereby their legal residence depends wholly upon their sponsors and employers.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) lamented that “employment visas that tie workers to their employers make it difficult for workers to change employers, even in cases of abuse...workers’ visas should not be linked to employers.

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