More than 100 migrant workers who went on strike in Qatar this week over low pay have been arrested and are being processed for deportation, according to their co-workers.
The men, who hail from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, are construction workers employed by two subcontracting companies – Qatar Freelance Trading and Contracting as well as Qatar Middle East Co. They worked on construction sites that included the recently renovated Sheraton Doha hotel.
Speaking to Doha News at their labor accommodations in the Industrial Area yesterday, some of the co-workers of those who were arrested said they also expected to be forced out of the country in the coming days.
They said police officers showed up in SUVs, accompanied by a company bus, to their camp around midday Monday after several hundred laborers refused to work for a third straight day.
The men said that when they resisted, a camp boss struck several workers with a piece of plastic pipe and started a scuffle.
The strike, which was first reported by Nepali daily Kantipur, apparently started when managers ordered the men to go to work on Friday evening, a day they typically have off.
While at the labor camp on Monday, Doha News observed that one of the supervisors there had a black eye and a fresh cut on his cheekbone that the workers said was inflicted in the melee. The man declined to discuss his injuries.
According to the employees, Friday’s incident was the final straw following grievances about their pay, accommodations and working conditions.
“I’m hard working, but the salary is not on time, the food is not good … and when people are sick, the company takes their pay,” one man told Doha News.
The workers estimated that roughly 800 people participated in the strike, although company managers say the figure was much lower.
In an unrelated posting, Qatar’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs tweeted a reminder of labor rules today, saying:
Meanwhile, the Indian embassy said yesterday afternoon that it was not aware of the strike situation, but would look into it. Several officials at the Nepal embassy confirmed they were familiar with the case, but declined to comment.
Several of the Nepali employees who spoke to Doha News said they signed a contract in their country that promised a monthly salary of QR1,200 (US$330) plus QR200 ($55) for food.
When they arrived in Qatar, the men said they were forced to relinquish their passports and sign a blank contract.
The practice of contract substitution, where workers sign an agreement in their home countries but are forced to accept lower wages when they arrive in Qatar, has been repeatedly documented and criticized by human rights organizations.
The pay ended up being QR600 ($165) for laborers and QR800 ($220) for tradespeople, plus the QR200 food allowance.
The men say their frustrations escalated earlier this month when some workers were not given their wages for October.
But their employer denies the accusation. Hamid Nawaz, the general manager of Qatar Freelance Trading and Contracting, said every worker had received his pay.
He told Doha News that between 50 and 60 employees refused to work because “they wanted (a higher) salary.” The rest, Nawaz added, were willing to continue working. He said he expected operations to return to normal later this week.
Nawaz added that those men who did not want to work had asked to be sent home, a request the company was honoring.
Strikes – especially those involving a larger number of workers – are a very rare occurrence in Qatar, which is highly sensitive to dissent among its large foreign workforce.
This is likely because local laws make it effectively impossible for non-Qataris to strike.
Another case with similarities to this week’s events took place in 2010 and gained international attention. At that time, some 90 foreign laborers working for al-Badar Construction Co. were arrested after going on strike, according to the US State Department.
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.
The company had refused to increased their wages by 10 percent as stipulated in the employees’ contracts, and instead cut monthly salaries by 35 percent to QR650 ($179).
The US government said the workers were jailed for several days and then deported. Those who had been at the company for less than two years had to pay their own airfare.
To avoid incidences like these, Nick McGeehan, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said employees in Qatar should have the legal right to strike.
However, he noted that many problems between workers and their employer could be solved if there were other ways for individuals to air their complaints.
“People in the Gulf states say (strikes) are unacceptable. But it’s inevitable … What are their other avenues for grievances? Often, they don’t have one,” McGeehan told Doha News.
Still, Qatar’s government has said it wants to make it easier for workers to seek redress for work-related problems.
While residents have the option of filing a case in labor court, for example, this is often used as a last resort by desperate individuals who can afford the QR600 fee they’re required to pay to have an expert review their case.
Over the summer, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs installed multilingual kiosks at six of its branches that allows workers to lodge a complaint electronically.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, McGeehan said UAE authorities react swiftly to cases of labor unrest and has engaged in mass deportations of workers.
He added that there, companies typically deal with labor unrest by going straight to the police, rather than attempt to actually resolve issues with their employees.
McGeehan said it is important for the police who respond to conduct a full investigation of the incident, including whether the employer is paying its workers and if its operations are in order.
“If they don’t, then the police are becoming a private security arm for the construction sector,” he said.
“Qatar hasn’t reached (that) level of aggressiveness,” he said. But “this (case) is disturbing, and would suggest that Qatar wants to go down that repressive path.”