Qatar migrant crisis: Despite progressive labour laws, over 600 stranded Indian workers continue to face rights abuses

Over 600 Indian workers, stranded in destitute, fighting poverty, hunger and ailment in Qatar, are gradually losing hope that they will ever make it to their homeland.

"We approached the Indian embassy; we have approached the police. But all of them are least bothered," said Balvinder Singh*, a native of Punjab, who is one of 650 Indian workers who remain stranded in Qatar without salary and basic human rights.

These migrants work for Hamad Bin Khalid Hamad (HKH) WLL, a company owned by the Qatari royal family. The workers said they were recruited by a recognised agency and were initially being paid a proper salary; but, their work permits have expired and the company has allegedly refused to renew it.

 Qatar migrant crisis: Despite progressive labour laws, over 600 stranded Indian workers continue to face rights abuses

Representational image. Getty Images.

"My card expired two months ago. The company which has left us in a lurch for the last four months has failed to renew our cards. It's not only about our cards, for the last five months, the company has not paid us our salaries as well. We are forced to struggle and even managing our daily meals have become difficult," said Mohammed Aslam*, a migrant from Uttar Pradesh. Aslam has fallen seriously ill but cannot visit a hospital for treatment as he doesn't possess a valid labour card.

"My mother is ill. I am not able to send money for her to buy medicines. I could not pay the school fee of my children (who are in India)," said Singh.

Apart from the 650 Indian workers, there are at least 500 more labourers from other Asian countries working in Doha. They have been living in the Gulf country without food, water and power supply. They have approached embassy authorities for help, but their requests have yielded no results till now. Even if these workers want to fly home, the lack of No Objection Certificates (NOCs), end of service benefits and air tickets keep them stranded.

As Qatar is preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, construction activities are on in full swing and most workers employed are migrants from other countries. Of the 2.5 million residents in Qatar, over 90 percent are migrants. Around 31 percent of Qatar's population comprises Indians.

Facing pressure from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and International Labour Organisation (ILO), Qatar was forced to do away with its Kafala (bonded labour) system. The ILO also closed a case it had started against Qatar after the country adopted worker-friendly policies and reforms aimed at protecting around two million workers.

The reforms included a minimum wage structure and the freedom for workers to leave the country without the employers' permission. ITUC had hailed the reforms, calling it a "new era for workers' rights in the country," and urged neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to follow suit.

But migrant workers from Asian countries, including India, continue to have their rights abused.

Migrant rights activists said that they were surprised to learn about the 1,000-odd workers employed by HKH being stranded despite the pro-worker reforms.

One of the reasons being cited for the condition of these migrant workers is the passing away of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani, a Qatari entrepreneur and the former chief of the Qatari police force who founded HKH in 1995.

Hamad Al Thani was also a member of the House of Thani and a cousin to the former Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Trouble began for HKH after his death in 2012, as his son was reportedly not able to run the business properly.

As the company has connections with the Qatari royal family, a section of workers is afraid to approach Qatari authorities seeking justice. Besides, Qatar's legal system could invite trouble for workers if they talked to the media without proper authorisation.

But despite such concerns, social workers and the migrants approached several authorities concerned and the media. "We know that there is a risk. But how can we leave them to starve," a social worker based in Qatar, who is helping the stranded migrants, said.

The workers said that they registered a complaint with the Indian Embassy on 10 April. Later, workers from Nepal and Bangladesh also approached their respective embassies with written complaints.

But S Rao*, a native of Andhra Pradesh said, "The embassy officials just consoled us and said the issue will be resolved soon. They gave us immediate help like food and a little money, but the real issue remains unresolved."

The workers said that they had approached both the police and the labour department but no relief was given to them. "Police made promises, but they were not met," said Rao.

"When we approached the labour department, they assured that they will mediate and resolve the issue. However, they kept on changing dates. They frightened us by saying that filing a case will worsen the situation. So, we waited till 1 May; but when we approached the labour department after 1 May, we were told that no new complaints can be registered as there are a huge number of cases already pending against HKH," Rao added.

The workers alleged that even the National Human Rights Centre (NHRC) did not provide them with any form of help. Sources said that officials at the newly-opened International Labour Organisation (ILO) are also aware of the case.

"The case of these workers has become a shame for Qatar. They should resolve it at the earliest and ensure that such cases are not repeated," a rights activist based in India said.

An Indian social worker based in Qatar listed down the system failures that have pushed the HKH workers towards destitute. "First, there is a Wage Protection System (providing salary every month through banks with labour department in the loop) implemented in Qatar. How did the system fail to pick the unpaid and delayed salary cases of the HKH workers? Secondly, why was justice delayed or denied to the workers? Thirdly, why is the Kafala system still in practice when Qatar claims to have removed it," the social worker said, on condition of anonymity.

"Whatever the reason may be, the workers hired by HKH are struggling. We are supplying them with food and water. We are also in touch with various labour departments to find a solution," an Indian social worker in Doha, who along with a few friends supply food and water to camps near Al Rayyan every week, said.

Qatar, which is politically isolated by other Gulf countries in the region for its alleged connections with Islamic State terrorists, is struggling to carry out its construction projects due to a cash crunch.

A blockade imposed last year has increased prices of commodities and raw materials for construction and affected cash flow. The cash crunch has adversely affected several construction companies; in such a scenario, the migrant workers become the first line of casualty.

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of victims and help them avoid legal trouble.

The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup.

Updated Date: May 19, 2018 18:13:27 IST