Qatar’s massive migrant workforce is still being exploited by employers who withhold wages, threaten expulsion, and deduct pay, leaving some staff unable to eat, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
Widespread abuses persist even after Qatar — where more than 90 percent of the 2.75 population are migrant workers — pledged to clean up its act following a torrent of criticism of its labour laws when it won the contest to host the 2022 World Cup a decade ago.
“Independent employers, as well as those operating labour supply companies, frequently delay, withhold, or arbitrarily deduct workers’ wages,” the New York-based rights group said in a report.
HRW said it interviewed more than 93 migrant workers working for more than 60 companies or employers and reviewed legal documents as part of its investigation.
“Employers often withhold contractually guaranteed overtime payments and end-of service benefits, and they regularly violate their contracts with migrant workers with impunity,” it said.
Qatari authorities have taken numerous steps to protect workers — including the creation of an electronic Wage Protection System meant to detect unpaid salaries.
However, the effectiveness of the WPS has been mixed with numerous high profile cases of major contractors failing to pay.
While wealthy Qatar is one of the few countries forecast to run a budget surplus in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has hit many sectors of the economy and left many employers unable to pay wages.
On March 16, Qatar announced a 75 billion riyal ($20.6 billion) business stimulus packages that included three billion riyals to cover worker wages.
“Since the pandemic first appeared in Qatar, these abuses have appeared more frequently,” HRW said.
“In the worst cases, workers told Human Rights Watch that employers simply stopped paying their wages, and they often struggled to feed themselves.”
– ‘I starve for food’ –
“Taking employers and their companies to the Labour Relations department or the Labour Dispute Resolution Committees is difficult, costly, time-consuming, ineffective, and can often result in retaliation,” the watchdog said.
Energy production, hospitality and aviation have been particularly hard hit with major employers like Qatar Airways and Qatar Petroleum undertaking swingeing redundancies.
HRW called on Qatar to enact recommendations by the UN’s International Labour Organization to lay down prompt payment laws, protect bank accounts and introduce expedited adjudication in cases of non-payment.
“There are less than 1,000 days left for the first World Cup football to be kicked off at a shiny, brand new stadium in Qatar… That leaves the Qatari authorities with just enough time to kick off wage reforms.”
The government fired back in unusually forceful language.
It said HRW “has intentionally misled readers of its report while performing a disservice to those they claim to be assisting”.
The Government Communications Office said the study contained inaccuracies, does not reflect current conditions, and could have been remedied if notified to officials.
“Nearly all individuals who come to Qatar for employment never experience any form of wage abuse,” a statement said.
“There are a few isolated instances where workers experience this issue. These cases have declined as laws and regulations have driven fundamental and lasting change.”
HRW’s 78-page report highlighted the case of a Ugandan security guard who was promised $329 a month, but between September 2019 and December 2019 was paid for just one month.
“They think that’s enough money to survive a month in Qatar? It is not. I starve for food, my family back (home) starves for food,” he told HRW.
The GCO said “the recommendations put forward in the report by Human Rights Watch are already being implemented or on track to begin implementation”.