Nepalis join hundreds of foreign construction workers in Qatar to protest against exploitation

The rare protests in the Gulf nation are being orchestrated by workers tired of their appalling working and living conditions.

Chandan Kumar Mandal

Kishor from Paanchthar went to work in Qatar nearly six months ago. To get a job in the Gulf nation, he had submitted Rs160,000 to a recruitment agency in Kathmandu to pay a supply company that outsources workers for various Qatari employers.

Kishor had gone in search of greener pastures. But upon reaching Qatar, which is hosting the FIFA World Cup 2022, Kishor, and tens of thousands of foreign workers like him, started facing various forms of exploitation at the hands of employers.

“We paid between Rs130,000 and Rs180,000 to various recruiting agencies to get here. Now we are struggling for money and food,” said Kishor, who wished to be identified by his first name only.

After being unpaid for months, Kishor and his other six friends from Nepal finally refused to go to work last week. They are among the thousands of construction workers who have been staging protests in the country since last week, complaining about continued inhuman treatments in the gas-rich nation. Following their decision to go on strike, video footage and photos have circulated on social media and reports on news outlets have surfaced, showing thousands of workers, especially construction workers, protesting on the streets for delayed and unpaid salaries and poor facilities.

“After we stopped going to work, the company manager came with a bouncer, who was drunk, to threaten us,” said Kishor. “They are visiting us with new sets of people every time. We cannot retaliate. What can we do?”

Another worker from Mahottari, who refused to be named fearing action from his employer and the local authority, said workers mostly employed in companies of the Shahaniyah Municipality took part in the strike.

“This is the first time such a massive strike has been carried out. Small-scale protests mostly inside companies’ premises have been held in the past,” the worker, who has been in Qatar for nearly 10 years now, told the Post over the phone. “This time it is different. Construction workers from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and other countries have come together to protest against inhumane treatment against them.”

According to him, these construction workers have been accompanied by foremen, site engineers and other workers.

“These workers must have been compelled to go on the streets because no one pays attention to their plight. They are either unpaid or have not been regularly getting their salary,” said the Nepali worker. “These workers cannot speak against the employer and the government by themselves, so they chose to speak out in big numbers.”

The World Cup hosting nation has been continuously under international scrutiny for the ill-treatment of its foreign labour force working on various projects, including the construction of infrastructure for the football mega event.

A recent investigation by Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln (WDR), a German public broadcaster, published in June, showed the appalling treatment of Nepali migrants working on the construction of numerous stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The report outlined that Nepali workers had been suffering without food, drinking water and salaries and cramped in small rooms for months in Qatar.

Following international pressure, the Gulf nation has reformed its labour laws in the past few years. However, Qatari laws still do not allow workers to take part in protest rallies openly and form workers’ union.

The Human Rights Watch, an international human rights protection agency, issued a statement on Friday in view of the ongoing workers’ protest and said Qatar, despite introducing some labor reforms in recent years, “has failed to abolish the exploitative kafala sponsorship labor system that fuels abuses and grants employers excessive power over their employees.”

“The workers in Qatar are going on strike in a country that bans them from striking or joining unions, and against the backdrop of a labor system that leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, is quoted as saying in the press statement. “Abusive labour practices that lead workers to take such a risk will continue until the Qatari government makes good on its promise to repeal the kafala system.”

Nepali workers have been reaching Qatar for years now. Although Qatar has remained a top labour destination country, it is also one of the deadliest countries for Nepali workers. A total of 1,426 Nepali workers died in Qatar between 2009 and 2019, according to the Nepal government figures.

“While exploitation has continued, work opportunities in Qatar have reduced as there are not many projects following the financial problems after economic and diplomatic blockade imposed by its neighbours,” said the Nepali worker. “Nepali workers pay huge sums of money for jobs here but are forced to struggle without food and money.”

Published: 11 August 2019/ The Kathmandu Post

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