Several construction workers in Qatar whose company has closed have been forced to abandon their claims for unpaid wages and return home after running out of money, according to one of their colleagues.
Their plight is one that human rights observers are saying illustrates the inability of Qatar’s justice system to force companies to pay their employees in a timely fashion.
The workers were employed by Lee Trading and Contracting – a firm that outfitted the interiors of many high-end local developments including the Torch Hotel, Qatar Sports Club and the Al Bidda office tower in Dafna.
The circumstances of the 80-some men, most of whom hail from Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Nigeria and the Philippines, were raised by Amnesty International late last year.
At the time, Lee Trading had not paid these employees their monthly wages in nearly a year, and owed them a total of QR1.5 million (US$411,000).
Many were unable to file a complaint with Qatar’s Labor Court because they could not afford the QR600 ($125) fee to pay for an expert report required by authorities. Rights groups have called the fee a barrier to accessing the justice system and said it should be abolished.
But even those who were able to afford the report and received favorable rulings are still waiting to be paid. Because the company has closed its doors and the workers’ sponsor is nowhere to be found, enforcing the court judgements is proving challenging.
One former member of the company’s office staff, who spoke to Doha News on the condition of anonymity, estimated that of the 300 to 400 former employees are owed money, 81 have open Labor Court cases.
Even though the Ministry of Interior has promised the workers no-objection certificates that would allow them to seek out other jobs in the country, the former employee said several claimants – who were also threatened with eviction – could not afford to stay in Qatar and have left the country.
He added that some former colleagues have suggested that the authorities seize and auction off the company’s assets to pay the workers. The property includes more than two dozen vehicles as well as computers, monitors, printers and furniture from a QR4 million ($1.1 million) business center on Grand Hamad (Bank) Street.
But the courts are still giving LTC more time to act on its rulings, according to the former employee.
“I’m trying to be optimistic and remain positive. But with so many disruptions and issues, it is disheartening. “It’s pushed (back) and pushed (back). It is a delay every time we go back to the court.”
Consequences of delay
While many workers employed by other companies have been able to recoup unpaid wages through Qatar’s Labor Court, the LTC case highlights some of the system’s shortcomings, said Amnesty researcher James Lynch.
In a report released last fall, Amnesty said the duration of Labor Court proceedings appear to be one factor deterring workers from pursuing their cases to conclusion.
“The longer a case goes on, more likely the person is to run out of money and choose to leave and go home,” Lynch told Doha News.
He said unpaid workers have told Amnesty their employers mocked their employees and encouraged them to file a Labor Court case against them, implying that they are not afraid of the process.
He added that many firms don’t show up to their hearings, which adds further delays.
Some sponsors have also been known to pressure unpaid workers into leaving the country by refusing to renew their residence permits, making them undocumented migrants and cutting them off from many facets of day-to-day life in Qatar that require a valid ID card.
In other court cases – such as what is starting to happen with some LTC employees – workers may be successful with their initial claim, but still can’t access their unpaid wages because the company doesn’t have the money.
“(Unpaid workers) essentially have to file two cases – first to win their case, then to file for enforcement action,” Lynch said.
These kinds of delays have also been a problem in other Doha courts. For example, a judge ruled in June 2013 that five people convicted of involuntary manslaughter after the Villaggio mall fire must pay blood money to the relatives relatives of the 19 people killed.
But many family members have since filed additional court motions to compel the defendants to pay that money, without success.
To tackle the LTC problem and the broader issue of non-payments, Human Rights Watch researcher Nick McGeehan told Doha News that several solutions could be introduced.
Government authorities could monitor the financial health of companies that sponsor foreign workers and only allow them to hire additional expats if they can prove they have sufficient funds to pay their wages and end-of-service benefits, he said.
Additionally, the government could pay workers who have received favorable Labor Court rulings itself and then use the state’s resources to prosecute company officials and recoup the funds.
As for the former LTC employees, the former office worker who spoke to Doha News said he has another court hearing in mid-April. He said he expects to receive a favorable settlement ruling, after which the defunct company would be granted 30 days to pay.
In the meantime, he said he’s temporarily gone without power in his apartment for not paying the bills and his landlord – who also hasn’t been paid by LTC – wants him out of his apartment, but gave him a reprieve after he explained his situation.
“It’s very embarrassing. I’ve never, in all my years of living overseas, been in a situation like this,” the former employee said.
He suggested Qatar’s legal system has not caught up to the country’s economic realities, and that reforms are needed.
“I love this country. I really do,” he said. “Qatar is just a little bit young – hopefully it will grow up in a few years.