A dozen Sri Lankan expats displaced by a massive labor camp fire earlier this month have been arrested and are expected to be deported from Qatar after apparently refusing to go to work last week.
However, a spokesperson for their employer, Seven Group, said the arrested men were not punished for failing to report to work. Instead, they stand accused of setting fires in their new labor camp, and for blocking some of their colleagues from going to work and accessing food supplies.
The detained men were among some 400 expats living in Sailiya who lost most of their possessions in this month’s fire. There were unconfirmed reports that two men died in the fire, which one of the labor camp tenants said he believed was caused by an electrical fault.
A community leader with knowledge of the incident told Doha News that the arrested men were among more than 100 individuals who effectively quit their jobs after the accident.
Wishing for home
Speaking to Doha News, the Seven Group manager said approximately 150 employees asked to be sent home in the aftermath of the fire, but did not give a specific reason why they wanted to terminate their employment.
According to the community leader, the fire was the latest in a string of frustrations for the men, which included disagreements with their employer about overtime and visa renewals, among other issues.
Seven Group provides workers to clean and serve drinks in offices around Qatar, and has several long-term contracts with government entities. The manager said that faced with a sudden employee exodus, the company asked the men to stay on for a while longer as replacement workers were hired.
There were also logistical issues surrounding processing so many termination requests.
“We don’t have a private plane to fly them (home),” he said.
He added that the 100 or so workers began protesting when they were not sent home immediately.
However, the community leader following this case said the employees had grown distrustful of their company and simply refused to return to work.
“They were not protesting … This has gone out of proportion,” he said.
According to an official from the Sri Lankan embassy, some 115 workers refused to show up for work on Thursday. That same day, police officers went to the camp and arrested 12 men. The embassy official said he was not aware why those specific men were targeted.
The Seven Group manager said the company would honor the requests of the workers who want to return home and would pay them their remaining wages and end-of-service benefits. He estimated that the company could repatriate around 100 expats a month.
Following the fire, the men were relocated to temporary accommodation in the Industrial Area for a day before being moved into a labor camp in Al Shahaniya in central Qatar.
An official from their embassy said he had inspected and approved the new housing.
“There’s no reason for them to refuse work, because the company provided them with good accommodations,” the embassy official said.
He said he did not know why the men were refusing the work.
It’s remains unclear whether the police arrested the workers due to the the arson allegations or over the notion that the men were refusing to work, as strike action is considered illegal in Qatar.
Such labor action is a rare occurrence in Qatar. Local laws make it effectively impossible for non-Qataris to strike, and authorities are highly sensitive to dissent within its large foreign workforce.
Nevertheless, there have been a handful of incidents in recent years, including Al Million taxi drivers protesting the daily fees they must pay their employer, as well as bus drivers refusing to shuttle students to school in September 2013 after their demands for higher wages and better treatment were denied.
And last November, roughly 100 construction workers were arrested in the Industrial Area after they went on strike.
The men told Doha News they were being paid less than they had been promised in their home country before they moved to Qatar.
Human rights advocates have previously argued that it should be easier for foreign workers in Qatar to file grievances and seek redress from their employers.
Lacking alternatives, low-income workers often feel they have no other option but to strike, Human Rights Watch researcher Nick McGeehan previously told Doha News.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has taken steps to address this by, for example, installing multilingual kiosks last summer at a half-dozen of its branches that allow individuals to lodge a complaint electronically.
Expats also have the option of filing a case in labor court, where they often receive a favorable ruling, US researcher Andrew Gardner said in a report late last year.
However, that’s only if they “make it to the finish line,” he said, noting that many individuals encounter hurdles in pursuing their case.
Challenges include understanding how to approach the justice system, language barriers, finding transportation to hearings and, in some cases, not having any income as their case proceeds.