The plight of migrant workers in Qatar has been written about exhaustively at home and abroad over the past few months. Documentation of dismal living and working conditions is spreading far and wide, prompting growing international condemnation. In response, some argue that the issue is becoming politically motivated – and that it is convenient to blame Qatar at a time when it is in the spotlight over the 2022 World Cup.
Stepping away from the big picture for a moment, Doha News recently sat down with one man to listen to his problems with the system. From his experience, it is clear that the flaws in the employment chain are numerous and complex, beginning with the inflated promises of a recruitment agency at home, and exacerbated by harsh treatment from his sponsor in Qatar. Here’s his story.
Lahiru De Silva, a 24-year-old private taxi driver whose name has been changed to protect his identity, met his future wife in grade school when he was 10 years old; they grew up as best friends. After graduating from high school together, they wanted to get married.
But both sets of parents were against the idea, saying the couple was too young. De Silva and his beloved disagreed, and eloped three years ago. Since then, the couple’s parents have refused to speak to them.
Like his two older brothers and much of Sri Lanka’s youth, De Silva had not been able to find work since graduation. But when his wife became pregnant, he found an offer from a recruiting agency at home promoting jobs in the Gulf and a paycheck of QR1,500 a month too good to refuse.
But to become employed, he would first have to incur an initial debt of QR5,000. Like many low-income Asian expats, De Silva took out loans to cover the fees, which the recruitment company said was to pay for “insurance” and a plane ticket to Doha.
When De Silva arrived in Qatar in April, ready to work, he said he was hit with additional fees that the recruitment agency had not mentioned: QR1,250 for a Qatar ID, and QR2,050 for a driver’s license.
But he had no means to foot the bill, so the private taxi company that was supposed to sponsor him (which De Silva and his roommates asked not to be named) did not give De Silva any work.
Instead, the expat was taken to a building in Doha’s industrial area where Sri Lankan employees of the cab company live and told to report back when he had the funds to buy the ID and license.
There, De Silva found a small room with six other men who let him sleep on a mattress on the floor. The room was a mess. Yellowing white paint peeled from walls littered with insects. Suitcases lay on the floor, either discarded for lack of a closet or serving as impromptu tables. The air was rank with humidity and smelled of evaporated sweat, as a wall-mounted broken AC unit dribbled water into a bucket below.
Without a bedframe, De Silva was more vulnerable to the room’s cockroaches, and the bedbugs already infested in the mattress. But he made do. In just two months, his wife was due to give birth to a baby girl. And he knew they’d be counting on his paycheck for food.
Qatar’s industrial area is home to thousands of South Asians like De Silva who are attempting to escape the poverty that is rife in their home countries. As preparations for the 2022 World Cup swell the country’s low-income migrant worker count to 1.2 million, Qatar now boasts one of the highest expat-to-citizen ratios in the world.
Only about 5 percent of those migrants come from Sri Lanka, while the majority hail from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Last week, Amnesty International released a report detailing human rights violations to which this imported workforce is commonly subjected.
“The Dark Side of Migration” showed widespread abuse of construction workers in Qatar, often involving harsh working conditions, non-payment of salaries, and abysmal housing accommodations. According to the report, migrant workers commonly suffer from psychological distress due to debt burdens and an inability to support families back home.
Many of these men don’t speak up about their situations for fear of losing their jobs and being deported, one of De Silva’s roommates explained to Doha News:
With no salary from the taxi company, De Silva set out working odd jobs around the building, like scrubbing toilets and washing cars. Housemates would pay him, usually QR10, for each chore he did.
After six months, he made enough money for the ID and license, and was hired by the company. The job was more grueling than he expected. Drivers at his company work 12 hours every day, with only one day off per week. But it was still better than the employment limbo he’d been in before, and he was finally added to the company’s pay chart.
But relief proved transient, as getting behind the wheel of a cab turned out to be another debt trap. According to company policy, any time a driver is at fault in an accident, QR2,000 are deducted from his pay.
During De Silva’s first month operating a cab, he got into two minor accidents. Both times, De Silva had been switching lanes and clipped another car. He said no more than small dents and scratches were left on the car, but the company insisted on docking QR2,000 per accident.
“It’s not fair that he has to pay QR2,000 for the accident,” a roommate of De Silva’s told Doha News. “We could have gotten it fixed for QR150. The damage was not bad.”
The roommate further asserted that the company has insurance for the cars, and gets them fixed practically for free, so the money that it takes from workers is unnecessary.
De Silva’s got his paycheck, which was supposed to be for QR1,500, on Nov. 7. His company withheld QR440 for what they told him were outstanding charges separate from the debt incurred from the crashes.
His debt balance with the company remained at QR4,000. De Silva sent the remaining QR1,060 of his paycheck back to Sri Lanka, but did not keep any money for himself. He said he borrowed QR200 from a friend to buy food.
Now, seven months after moving to Qatar, De Silva has sent home money for the first time. But with looming debts of QR4,000 at his company and QR5,000 back home, he’s afraid sending any more will not be possible.
And even if he does pay off his debts, his employer has said he won’t grant him a no-objection certificate to change jobs, or an exit permit until his contract is finished.
Still, his wife is telling him to call it quits.
“When I talk to my wife on the phone, she tells me, ‘just pay off the debts and come back home. I can’t be without you,’” said De Silva.
His wife lives in a province in northern Sri Lanka called Vavuniya, where a friend of hers lets her stay at her house for free. She also depends on friends for food and other essentials.
De Silva said phone cards for calls to Sri Lanka are expensive, and he can only afford one per week, which lasts only a few minutes. He said each rushed conversation is pretty much the same. “I miss you,” she says. “Come home.”
Note: This article was changed on Nov. 26 after follow-up interviews with De Dilva, who clarified that wages were garnished from his first paycheck, but that it was not completely withheld by his company. Also, the full balance of debt for his crashes remains. Additionally, in the days after the article was originally published, De Silva accrued more debt when he got a QR500 ticket for speeding. The ticket brings his company debt to QR4,500 and his total debt including loans in Sri Lanka to QR9,500.