Migrant workers in the Gulf are building up their own organizations despite state repression
Most of Qatar’s 2.3 million migrant workers come from Nepal and India. Widespread poverty and high unemployment rates make the choice of finding work abroad a not entirely voluntary decision. Today, around 400,000 Nepalese migrants are employed mainly in construction, but also in hotels, restaurants, and private households. Migrant workers’ remittances account for almost one third of the gross domestic product in Nepal.
The living and working conditions of low-skilled construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup are particularly devastating. The lack of rights, legal protections, and health and safety regulations are often described as modern slavery. At the heart of the migration regime is a sponsorship system called “kafala” that binds workers’ residence and work permits to their respective employer, placing them in a highly dependent situation and at the employer’s mercy.
To learn more about workers’ conditions in the Gulf and what they are doing to fight back, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Ulrike Lauerhass spoke with Chandra (name changed), an activist from a Nepalese migrant workers’ organization. Due to the increasingly repressive conditions in which activists live and work in Qatar, his name and his organization must remain anonymous.
How did you come to work in Qatar, and what are you doing there?
I come from the northeast part of Nepal. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Business Studies at Tribhuvan University. I had worked in a very small private company to sustain my studies, but the salary was too little to pay for the very expensive Master’s course I planned to do. Neither in the private nor NGO sector was it possible to find a suitable, secure job, so in April 2013 I decided to go to Qatar for work.
By that time, there was a massive trend of migration from Nepal to the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Malaysia, especially among the youth. Right now, more than 3500,00 migrant workers from Nepal are working in Qatar. When I walked the streets in Qatar, I met many migrant workers in misery and I started talking to them, asking about their current living and working conditions and listening to their stories that pushed me to do something .
Talking to my Nepalese friends in other countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE, we came to understand that it was a common phenomenon, and that we wanted to do something about it. So we organized a meetings and talked about the issue from a human rights and justice perspective, and launched an initiative to advocate for migrant workers’ rights. It’s difficult to organize, but luckily, all Nepalese migrant workers travel back to Nepal for the festival season. The employer covers this trip each or every second year, so in that time, we can meet in Nepal and discuss strategies.
When did you decide to found your own organization?
We organized a 3-day strategic meeting with participants from Malaysia, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait with journalists and Nepalese activists for human rights and migration. We founded the organization and came up with three important issues we wanted to work on: first, empowering the mainly low-skilled, low-educated, and low-paid migrant workers to raise their voice on justice and rights; second, pressuring the government to regulate and abolish the far-too-high recruitment fee that the recruiting agency back in Nepal demands; and third, advocating for Nepalese migrant workers to be able to exercise their voting right in Nepalese elections abroad, as the Supreme Court confirmed.
After that meeting, we networked in the destination countries and got support from international NGOs. We also looked further into the migrants’ conditions and living situations and gathered more detailed information.
Your network has hubs in so many places and your website covers a lot of issues. How did you get from your first meeting in 2017 to the current setup?
We started regular video conferences in Nepali every last Friday of the month via social media channels and provided a space for debate, exchange of information, counselling, and organizing. We invited migrant rights activists, human rights activists, and journalists to join us and give inputs on certain questions.
We had one representative in each state and had to be careful to find more team members. In most of our destination countries, unionizing is forbidden, so it requires a lot of trust. We grew through mouth-to-mouth networking, so it took time. Now, we have 35–40 members in Qatar. We meet in small groups for coffee or tea in a small restaurant and talk. Some of us already came back to Nepal, because our contracts finished or because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so we met in the beginning of this year and developed a simple strategic plan for the next two to three years. Our ambitious goal is to recruit 500–600 members dedicated to improving the situation of migrant workers.
When the pandemic broke out, the situation got really difficult, sometimes even chaotic, especially for migrant workers that do not speak or write English, because they did not get any information. We started a regular live video call to give basic information on COVID-19 — how to protect oneself and others. The outreach was very high, we had more than 20,000 followers from everywhere, so we know that we met a need. We also started cooperating with an NGO to provide emergency aid (food and disinfectant) to those who did not get proper support from their employers. At the moment, we are online three times per week discussing a wide range of issues, including cultural exchange.
How are the working and living conditions now during the pandemic?
The situation of migrant workers was already really strained before the pandemic, but it doubtlessly got a lot worse. Take construction workers, for example: they usually work in teams because they do manual work, and they share a room, so the system does not allow distance, and they got infected more often than others.
In Mid-August of last year, I myself got infected with the virus, and so I could observe the situation in the quarantine and isolation facilities. Even if the Qatari government provides free accommodation and food for the affected persons, which is really good, you could clearly see the inequality of access: the better-qualified workers were sent to five-star hotels, while the less-skilled workers were housed in very simple, poor accommodations without adequate food — in a situation where both were having the same health problems!
The more vulnerable workers get insufficient support, i.e. those who do not have the means to buy what is missing. Therefore, this is a discriminatory policy, especially taking into account that the state of Qatar has enough capacities to give everybody the same qualified service. From a justice perspective, all should be treated the same.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the trade union Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) claim that the conditions on construction sites in Qatar have improved over the last few years. Do you agree?
This is somehow true, and the presence of ILO and BWI in Qatar as well as international pressure on the Qatari government has had a positive impact on workers’ conditions — but only to a certain extent. It’s also positive that human rights activists have more space today than before. But this is only what you see on the surface.
We have “FIFA projects” in Qatar, where these improvements were implemented and certain requirements are fulfilled. But the construction sites for the world championship only account for around two percent of construction sites in Qatar. The other sites, which are not in the spotlight, employ the majority of lesser-skilled migrant workers. They cannot benefit from these improvements, and for them, there has not been significant change.
To explain this in more detail: the Qatari government introduced slight, decorative improvements in workers’ rights and protection, e.g. related to the kafala system, and in 2020 they even introduced what they call a “non-discriminatory minimum wage” and removed the no-objection certificate requirements to change employers. That sounds liberal and progressive, but these mainly exist only on paper. On a large scale, there are still many cases of harsh working and poor living conditions. What has been done is not enough, and since Qatar is one of the richest countries, it has the means to treat its migrant workers with dignity, and to respect their workers and human rights in an accountable way.
What do you think about the idea to launch a boycott against the World Cup, as proposed by some groups here in Germany and internationally?
I do understand the frustration of critical progressive people and football fans, and we appreciate the effort and solidarity that comes with this initiative, but I do not think that this is a good idea, because it will not improve the lives of migrant workers now. It might have been positive at an earlier stage, but now it is too late and might have negative impacts on today’s migrant workers. I am concerned the small improvements could even be reversed.
Do you think court cases are a good strategy to enforce changes?
We actually supported a migrant worker with outstanding salaries, because his company went bankrupt. Altogether, 470 Nepalese workers were not paid, and the Nepalese embassy could not help. Even with the mechanism to deal with such cases in Qatar, the Committee for Labour Dispute Resolution, it could not be solved, so we supported him to bring it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the workers, meaning the state has to pay the outstanding salaries.
That sounds like a success story. However, if you dig deeper, you see that it is not a functioning system: first, it took more than a year to win this case — a year without income and the risk of being deported. Then, the state is allowed to pay in instalments, so the worker has to wait even longer for his payment to which he is entitled, because he fulfilled the contract from his side and delivered the labour he was supposed to.
Not surprisingly, not every migrant worker is willing or able to fight this through, and therefore the legal accountability mechanisms do not provide proper protection for migrant workers against these kind of injustices. The system is not effective, and this worker would not have been able to bring his case before the court without support from us and many others paying for the lawyer, his food, accommodation, and transport during the trial.
What are your demands from the Qatari state and other actors?
The Qatari government should make sure all migrant workers are able to live and work in adequate conditions, with freedom and dignity, with respect and their human, social, and economic rights. For now, they do so only for a small amount of migrant workers.
The ILO might face certain limitations in Qatar, but it also comes with a mandate to standardize working conditions and the labour system. It has both the right and capacity to do so. Germany, as one of the most powerful states in the world, should support and pressure the ILO — and FIFA — to fulfil its mandate. The small improvements by the Qatari government give us hope that further steps are possible and will be implemented. The ILO is more powerful than a migrant worker, so they should raise strong demands. I have not been able to benefit from my freedom as a migrant worker in Qatar, but maybe the next generation will be able to enjoy the freedom we are fighting for.
Ulrike Lauerhaß works as a program manager in the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s West Asia Unit. The article was first published on rosalux.de.