Qatar: Uncertain future

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The effects of the Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Qatar, which has been in place for over 100 days, are beginning to show. Prices of commodities such as rice and vegetables have been rising bit by bit, travel out of and into Qatar is getting more expensive, and jobs are vanishing. Everyone feels the pinch, but the problem is acute for those at the bottom of the pyramid, the migrant labourers.

“A lot of labourers will be in trouble,” said a worker known to this correspondent. He has been granted two months’ leave to visit his hometown in Kerala. While he is confident that his job in an oil drilling company is safe, he knows what is in the offing. “I normally pay 150 riyals for my meals each month in the canteen,” he said. “Last month [August], I had to pay 220 riyals.” He says he will manage “fine” until his canteen bill hits 300 riyals. “I am not sure what to do then,” he said. Working for a subcontractor, he says he has seen canteen workers struggle to get supplies.

“On average, there has been a 10 to 15 per cent increase in food prices,” noted Migrant-Rights.org, a content-based advocacy platform that works for the rights of migrant labourers in West Asia, in early August. “Cafeterias near labour accommodation have only increased their prices by a riyal or two per meal. One worker we spoke to explains why eating out is not economically feasible. ‘Most of us can’t afford to eat every meal outside. You pay five to six [riyals] for breakfast, another 10 for lunch and maybe seven for dinner. That adds up to 22 or 24 riyals a day, about 600 riyals a month. That’s almost all our salary. So we prefer buying provisions and cooking. We can control the expenditure better. But it’s getting really tough. Everything is about 10-15 per cent higher. That means from 200 or so riyals we set aside for food, now we have to set aside 250.’”

A person who has been in Doha in different jobs since 2010 said the Qatar government was taking many steps, such as importing cows for milk, to make sure that the country attained self-sufficiency at an early date. In early September, Qatar opened one of the largest ports in the region, the $7.4 billion, 26 sq km Hamad port, 40 km south of Doha, in a bid to break the sanctions imposed on it by its neighbours.

But these measures do not yield results immediately. He is not sure how many labourers at the lower end of the income spectrum will be able to manage until that time. “Whether it is the Sheikh or the common man, all have to shell out additional money for the same quantity of food or provisions. It affects us all,” he said.

It is not merely the additional cost of living that creates problems for labourers in Qatar. The gas-rich country has no low-cost airline. Both Air Arabia and Fly Dubai no longer fly to Doha. Most labourers travelling in and out of Doha have to pay more for each trip despite the few flights by low-cost IndiGo and Air India Express. The additional cost to an Indian destination can range from Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000.

On June 7, a report in The Hindu’s Hyderabad edition narrated one such experience. “Speaking to The Hindu from Sanaya Industrial Area of Doha, G. Ravi, a concrete pump technician who has been living in Qatar for seven years, said if the crisis deepens, he will have to shell out 920 Qatar riyals more than his original airfare which was 600 riyals on Air Arabia, which flies via Sharjah, Saudi Arabia. A difference of Rs.16,100 one way,” the report said.

On August 3, Migrant-Rights.org noted that the first month of the blockade did not impact Qatar much. “However, as the blockade closes [in] on its second month, the effects are increasingly felt by migrants in the hospitality, construction and shipping industries. Employees in these sectors have been asked to go on unpaid ‘long leave’ for two to three months, in addition to their standard 30 days of paid annual leave,” it reported.

Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup construction work had created a huge additional labour demand, but the blockade has pushed up costs. This has impacted the pace of construction. Two staffers in middle-level positions told this correspondent that much of the construction materials can no longer be imported directly from the hub of West Asia, Dubai. Instead, this is being routed via Oman, pushing up costs, and sending deadlines into a tailspin.

But India does not seem to have a handle on the situation. On July 27, in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha by D. Kupendra Reddy whether “it is a fact that thousands of Indians in Qatar have become unemployed due to recent crisis there”, Union Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh said: “The Indian Embassy in Qatar has informed that Indians working in Qatar have not been affected due to recent crisis in Qatar. The Government of India has been closely following the emerging situation in the region and is in regular touch with the regional countries who have assured us of their continued support for the welfare and well-being of over eight million Indian expatriates.” Just a week earlier, the Minister made a similar assertion in the same House to a question from C.M. Ramesh.

Although there was a fairly high-level India-Qatar bilateral discussion later in August in New Delhi, India voiced concerns only in passing in this forum. “EAM @SushmaSwaraj welcomes Mr Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Foreign Minister of Qatar on his visit to India,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted on August 26. Another of his tweets read: “Bilateral issues, including welfare of Indian workers in Qatar were discussed.” No details were available.

Indians in Qatar

Qatar has 6.3 lakh Indians working there (25 per cent of the population) compared with 2.57 lakh nationals. Qataris have been a minority in their country for many decades. In fact, migrants constitute 91 per cent of the Qatari population, says a World Bank report. While Nepal and India have not prevented its workers from heading to Qatar, the Philippines issued an order against labour migration into Qatar, only to withdraw it the very next day. According to the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook, 2016, the remittances from Qatar to India amounted to over $4.2 billion (data from 2015).

Qatar has extended the visa on arrival to 80 countries, including India, from August 9. Vani Saraswathi, Associate Editor and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.Org, said that it was common knowledge that the hotel industry was hit and “it’s definitely a way of inviting more people into the country”.

According to statistics presented by V.K. Singh in the Rajya Sabha, the number of ECR [Emigration Check Required] category workers going to the six main Indian-employing countries has been going down. From 75,983 in 2014, the number of workers arriving legally in Qatar went down to 59,340 in 2015 to 30,619 in 2016.

Asked how Qatar compared with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in relation to working conditions for migrant labourers, Vani Saraswathi, said: “To a large degree the situation is similar. Difficult to say one country is better than the rest. Where there are laws, implementation is lacking; then there is [the] question of attitudes. It appears that workers are treated far worse in KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] than, say, in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] or Qatar, if we are to go by reporting of incidents. Even reforms have been carried out in different directions in different countries. A point of note is that Qatar and KSA are the only ones that still have an exit permit system. And Qatar is also only the second country to have a separate law for DWs [domestic workers], after Kuwait. How each country treats workers of a particular nationality is also to a degree dictated by the MoUs or BLAs [Memoranda of Understanding or Bilateral Labour Agreements] in place. India should have a uniform policy of protection for its citizens abroad, instead of drawing up policies on the fly, based on the negotiations with a certain country, like in the case of Kuwait, where India has waived the insurance fee for DWs, which is an ill-thought move.”

Asked if the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Qatar review (in response to a complaint raised by trade unions), slated for November, would improve conditions for workers, she said that Qatar had engaged with rights groups and with the ILO. “It’s not easy for an Amnesty or HRW [Human Rights Watch] to go to other countries in the region, whereas they have been able to visit and report from Qatar. The ILO review is part of a longer process, and Qatar has committed to address the issues raised. The problem as we see it is that Qatar’s reforms seem to be more reactionary than proactive. When the hue and cry was about ‘Kafala’ [sponsorship system], it carried out rudimentary reforms, renamed the labour migration system, while maintaining many of the worst provisions of the Kafala system, including the exit permit system.” Bahrain includes domestic workers, with exclusions in the labour law; Saudi Arabia has comprehensive regulations; and the UAE has a law in the pipeline.

Just as in any other GCC country, many Indians arrive in Qatar to work on a tourist visa—ironically facilitated by multiple border control and other agencies that work to control irregular immigration. In Qatar, as many as 180 Indians are in jail, and the Indian mission relies on the services of just one law firm to handle all these cases. “Initial legal assistance is also available to Indian nationals abroad on gratis basis in the most deserving cases on a means tested basis through the Indian Community Welfare Fund,” V.K. Singh said in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha on April 6.

The mission in Qatar has received 3,577 complaints, the third highest from an ECR country. Activists argue that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The mission is barely equipped to handle a flood of complaints.

(Originally published in the Frontline, India.)

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