DOHA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As a migrant worker from Bangladesh, Sharif should be happy about Qatar’s labor reforms, put in place to protect people like him. Instead, he feels the system still allows his employer to get round rules designed to stop them exploiting him.
“I don’t feel comfortable complaining because my company could fire me and I will get sent back home,” said the 22-year-old, who declined to give his full name.
“If I get sent back home, there will be nobody to help pay for my family,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Stung by allegations of migrant worker abuse and under increased scrutiny as it prepares to host the 2022 football World Cup, the gas-rich kingdom has put in place a series of safeguards over the past year.
These include setting a temporary monthly minimum wage of 750 riyals ($200) and creating a committee to resolve disputes.
Last week, it lifted a requirement that foreign workers get permission from their employers to leave the country - a change labor rights groups had long campaigned for.
“We are changing the dynamics in the relationship,” said Houtan Homayounpour, who heads the newly opened Doha office of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
“It (axing the exit permit) will have a huge impact on the labor market here in reducing the vulnerability of workers. They are free to leave, they are free to move around.”
Critics say the removal of the exit permit - part of the “kafala” employee sponsorship system used by a number of Gulf states - does not go far enough because migrant workers will still need their employers’ consent to change jobs.
However, campaigners have broadly welcomed Qatar’s labor reforms as a sign it is cracking down on worker exploitation ahead of the World Cup, which it has presented as a showcase of its progress and development.
Mustafa Qadri, who heads the labor rights consultancy Equidem Research, said the test would be implementation.
“(A) critical step to preventing exploitation is enforcing these reforms – ensuring workers are aware of their rights, that the state has sufficient resources to enforce them such as through labor inspections,” he said.
On the ground, not all the country’s nearly 2 million foreign workers believe the changes will be enough to protect them from exploitation.
Sharif said even though he receives a direct bank payment - made mandatory by the government - his bosses often make him work overtime without paying him. The government, he said, has no way of knowing this.
And because his family in Bangladesh depends on the money he sends, he is reluctant to voice his concerns about his employer.
He is paid the basic minimum wage, which is less than the 900 riyals a month he was promised by the recruiter in Bangladesh who brought him to Qatar, charging him $700 to do so.
It is illegal to charge recruitment fees to work in Qatar, and the country’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy - responsible for planning and operations for the World Cup - has said some stadium workers who paid them will be compensated.
An investigation funded by the body last year found hundreds of Asian workers had paid recruitment fees of up to $3,800 for jobs building World Cup stadiums.
“Addressing and eliminating illegal fees is critical – and that means not just addressing fees in countries of origin, but also those who make money out of charging workers fees here in Qatar,” said Qadri.
The government minister in charge of labor, Issa al-Nuaimi, said illegal recruitment fees were mostly generated outside the country and Qatar was working with the United States to combating trafficking.
“Most of crimes taking place are cross-continental,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Al-Nuaimi also said the government was setting up a shelter for victims of human trafficking and domestic workers who faced issues with their employer.
‘BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY’
Migrant workers outnumber the local workforce in Qatar by nearly 20 to one. Most are from the Philippines, South Asia and Africa, and about 800,000 work in the construction sector.
Human Rights Watch last year urged Qatar to do more to protect builders working outdoors in temperatures that can reach dangerous levels, pointing to hundreds of unexplained deaths.
Dinesh, who has worked in construction in Qatar for 11 years, said safety standards had improved, and he was now paid monthly instead of every four months.
“When I first came here there were no safety protocols on site and now there is,” said the 32-year-old from India, who gave only one name.
“At first, I would scale the building without having a safety belt and safety hat, and now we have those.”
But others said abuses persisted in areas that were harder for authorities to monitor.
“If you don’t work overtime they will move you to a place that is hotter as punishment,” said Suleiman, 22 and from Ghana, who said the construction company that hired him had taken his passport - illegal in Qatar.
“This is just the beginning of the journey,” said Equidem’s Qadri. “Some important milestones have been reached. But the reforms, to be effective, will require a generation of change.”