DOHA (Reuters) - The death of an Indian laborer in Qatar who had complained about not being paid and later committed suicide on a building site has focused attention on migrant workers struggling amid an economic downturn in the Gulf state ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
Scaffolder Ajaya Behara, 44, hanged himself in the basement of the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center on September 7, weeks after asking his employer to pay outstanding wages and renew his expired visa, according to his family and co-workers.
Behara’s employer has said the suicide was not related to work conditions. But his death on a flagship Qatar project has raised concern about how an oil slump is putting pressure on thousands of vulnerable migrants on whom the economy depends.
After pictures of Behara were shared on social media last week hundreds of laborers and taxi drivers held a vigil and signed petitions demanding an investigation which police have said they are carrying out.
Indian community leaders are appealing to the government to address suicide among low-income laborers often driven to despair by abusive employers and the pressure of providing for families back home.
Across the Gulf, companies have halted or slowed projects being built by millions of foreign workers recruited from Asia and Africa and delayed salary payments to cushion the impact of falling energy revenues.
In Saudi Arabia last month thousands of laid-off workers stranded in the kingdom without enough money for food or plane tickets staged rare public protests.
Qatar has weathered the global oil price slump since mid-2014 better than many of its neighbors partly because of its huge offshore gas reserves and small population.
But the decline in state energy income comes at a time when Doha is pursuing a $200 billion infrastructure upgrade for the 2022 soccer World Cup and building ports and hospitals, squeezing finances and leading to budget cuts.
Foreign workers recruited from countries including India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and who make up the bulk of Qatar’s 2.3 million population, have borne the brunt of cutbacks. Thousands have lost their jobs as the government has sought to shield its citizens from the impact of austerity.
Behara, a father of two from India’s Orissa province, was stranded in Qatar on an expired visa along with some 400 other laborers owed a month’s salary by UAE-based construction firm ETA Star and living in a crowded labor camp outside Doha on supplies borrowed from local stores.
Shaukat Mir, CEO of ETA Star, replying to questions from Reuters, declined to comment on the status of Behara’s residency and said his “wages were a month late” which was “common in the industry.”
Qatar has said it is improving conditions for foreign workers who need employers’ permission to leave the country and often pay recruiters back home huge sums that take several years to pay off.
“We are looking at them [ETA] and other firms who fail to pay their employees on time... companies have been blacklisted,” said a labor ministry official who declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The government in August announced 3 months grace for workers on expired visas to leave Qatar without incurring fines.
But workers say they fear that if they leave they will end up with nothing at all.
“If I go back, my family will say I let them down,” said Rajad Asfahi, a metal worker from India’s Kerala province.
Editing by Richard Balmforth