Qatar/FIFA: Address Demands of Migrant Worker Strikes

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Former short-term visa holders who had signed 2-year employment contracts but were sent back to Nepal within months. They had paid upward of US$1,138 as recruitment fees.
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(Beirut) – FIFA and Qatari authorities should ensure that migrant workers who have made the Qatar Men’s World Cup 2022 possible receive their full wages and benefits and are neither arrested nor deported for participating in protests, Human Rights Watch said today. FIFA and Qatari authorities should also tackle underlying wage abuse grievances including by supporting a remedy fund to comprehensively address this problem.

Between April and September 2022, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 migrant workers from India, Kenya, and Nepal who recently participated in or planned strikes, which are prohibited in Qatar.

Most migrant workers told Human Rights Watch that they had participated in strikes to protest wage theft as employers’ fail to pay wages on time, sometimes for months. Other workers with short-term visas participated in strikes after companies told them they were sending them home before their two-year employment contract had ended. One migrant worker said he was detained on August 14 with a group of other protesters and deported after 20 days. Qatari authorities confirmed that they detained and facilitated the “voluntary return” of workers who had joined the August 14 strike for “violating Qatar’s public security laws” and said they have taken legal action against two companies for wage abuse.

“Migrant worker strikes and protests in Qatar are an act of desperation for workers demanding action on wage theft,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “With weeks to go for the World Cup, especially as construction work in Qatar winds down or temporarily halts, FIFA and Qatari authorities should ensure worker wages and benefits are paid on time and in full instead of penalizing them for asking for what is rightfully theirs.”

A migrant worker told Human Rights Watch, “There are two things we [migrant workers] need. Regular work, and regular pay for work completed. Unfortunately, neither is guaranteed in Qatar, especially if you land a bad employer.”

Workers told Human Rights Watch that strikes occur in phases. When companies fail to pay them for months, they decide to stay in their accommodation and refuse to show up for work. But, they say, when salary delays persist, migrant workers protest in streets, sometimes in front of government buildings or a company’s headquarters, or even block traffic.

Another migrant worker described protesting on what he recalled to be July 25. “After repeated salary delays, we agreed among ourselves that if we were not paid by the 25th every month, we would remain in our rooms and avoid work until our payment was released.” However, when this tactic did not work, he and his colleagues decided to publicly protest. “This was our attempt to draw attention of the main company’s mudir [director], who is otherwise absent, and government authorities,” he added. Though he was paid his salary in full from the Ministry of Labour’s Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, along with return airfare, he said, “I paid almost $1,200 for this job [in recruitment fees]. I would have never paid that amount if I had known that I would have to return in 15 months.”

A former Al Bandary Engineering Trading and Contracting (W.L.L) worker said Qatari authorities arrested him for protesting with a group of other workers on August 14, held in a detention center, and deported him after 20 days. He was eventually paid his salary and end of service benefits, but only after being “hand-cuffed like a criminal” by Qatari authorities while being brought to his room to pick up his passport. “After nine years of work, I had to leave the country like a criminal.”

Rights groups have reported that the Qatari government deported at least 60 migrant workers for protesting in August. Qatar’s Labour Ministry said in a September 18 written response to Human Rights Watch questions on this issue that workers were detained in the August 14 strike for “violating Qatar’s public security laws,” but stated that they were not criminally prosecuted and that the government “facilitated the voluntary return” of some of the workers after their unpaid wages and benefits were paid through the ministry’s Worker’s Support and Insurance Fund.

Several workers reported that the police sometimes attempted to mediate between workers and management on their behalf but urge workers to remain within camp premises. A migrant worker said, “Such rallies [worker protests] have been held in the past too. But they were not in city centers. So, arrests did not happen. This time, it occurred in the heart of the city blocking traffic, which might have irked the government.” 

Other workers participated in strikes after companies told them they were sending them home on the expiry of their visa but before the end of their two-year employment contract. Workers from Al Jaber and Redco said that they had paid recruitment fees of up to $1,570 to obtain employment in Qatar and had expected to be employed for the full period of their contract. Qatari authorities told Human Rights Watch in a September 18 written response that “it is illegal for companies in Qatar to charge recruitment fees or related costs of any kind” and that employers have the right to terminate an employment contract before the expiration of its term, provided the employer adheres to providing the worker the notice period required by law.

Interviews with migrant workers reveal a widespread, urgent concern that unscrupulous employers will use the World Cup tournament as an excuse to send them back home without paying their full salaries and benefits. On August 16, 2021, the Qatar’s Public Works Authority’s issued a Circular 2021/42 that told companies to complete all construction work by September 21, 2022 and to plan for workers’ leave that reduces the total number of workers in Qatar until January 18, 2023.

Some migrant workers told Human Rights Watch they feared retaliation from their employer and Qatari authorities when they went on strike. A migrant worker said, “Of course we fear reprisal. But our hope is that when there are thousands of us raising our voices, we won’t get into trouble individually. How can they jail thousands of us?” Another shared the fundamental dilemma for migrant workers who have not been paid for months. “If we don’t participate, our situation may not improve,” he said. “If we participate, we may get into trouble in a foreign land. Who will help us then?” A former worker said, “We try to be cautious not to garner attention when we protest. We refrain from taking pictures or allowing others to take our pictures as both could get us into trouble.” While many workers received wages and end of service benefits after protests, others are still waiting in Qatar to recover what they are owed because, as one worker said, “the claims owed is not a small amount to just give up and leave.”

Other migrant workers said they had decided not to join strikes due to fear of reprisal from both their employer and Qatari authorities, but that this left them with little recourse to recoup unpaid salary or bargain for better accommodation. One interviewee said that he and hundreds of other workers at his company had planned a strike against salary payment delays and unhygienic accommodations but eventually decided against it. He even showed Human Rights Watch the online group chat with hundreds of employees used to plan the protest and said, “We agreed on a date to strike … to down our tools … but the plan fell apart as we feared reprisal.” He adds, “I cannot afford to lose the job even if the salary is frequently delayed. It is difficult for me to sleep in my stuffy, leaking room, but at least my children back home are not sleeping hungry.”

Article 116 of Qatar’s Labor Law allows only Qatari nationals the right to form workers’ associations or trade unions, depriving migrant workers of their rights to freedom of association and to form trade unions. While Qatar joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2018, it maintained several formal reservations, including interpreting the term “trade unions” in accordance with its national law. In lieu of this right, as part of its agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO), since 2019 Qatar helped establish some joint committees that include representatives of both the company and its workforce. However, as Amnesty International has documented, joint committees are flawed as they are led by employers and fall short of providing the same crucial protections as those offered by independent worker-led trade unions.

On September 8, Human Rights Watch wrote to four companies – Redco International, Al Jaber, Al Bandary, and Electrowatt – with questions about wage abuses and the return of workers prior to the conclusion of their contracts. Only one company, Al Jaber, responded , stating that workers had agreed to work on short-term visas and that workers had not paid recruitment fees, which migrant workers Human Rights Watch spoke to disputed.

Qatar’s Labour Ministry told Human Rights Watch in a September 18 written response to questions that it “has taken the necessary measures to facilitate the immediate payment of wages at Al Bandary Group and Electrowatt W.L.L through the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund.” The Ministry noted that its investigations uncovered “missing data in the employee lists of both companies,” noting that unpaid employees can claim compensation from the Worker’s Support and Insurance Fund. It also said that it had referred Al Bandary and Electrowatt for “legal prosecution.”

While the Worker’s Support and Insurance Fund is an important mechanism, it only became operational in 2020. Based on data the Ministry of Labour provided in July 2022, the fund has compensated 36,373 workers of 17 nationalities, both inside and outside Qatar, a total of 597,591,986 QAR (US$164 million).

“Less than two months ahead of the World Cup, workers are struggling to receive their wages and benefits on time and expressing their frustrations on the streets despite fear of retaliation. The least FIFA and Qatari authorities can do is ensure workers receive their owed wages and benefits as a matter of priority and establish a remedy fund that builds on existing compensation mechanisms like the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund to address past and ongoing widespread wage abuse,” said Page. 

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