The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development has published a report that exposes serious failings in the treatment of migrant labourers in the Gulf state.

The report was based on a survey of the conditions of labourers from the five markets of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, which provide most of the country’s low-skilled workforce. The survey was conducted in the wake of international criticism of working conditions and human rights abuses in Qatar as it prepares to host the Fifa World Cup in 2022.

“The highly competitive private sector involvement in recruitment, through misunderstandings and/or corruption, has fostered, rather than prevented, forced labour, debt bondage and trafficking for labour exploitation,” says the report.

It adds that there is evidence of the payment of “bribes by recruitment agencies in the sending countries to personnel of employing firms in Qatar in order to secure the labour supply contracts”. Although Qatari law makes it illegal to sell or trade visas, the report says this practice is widespread, adding there is also evidence of workers being stranded in Qatar without work or income.

Among other abuses, the report found workers are charged exorbitant fees by recruitment agents; that their contracts are changed or manipulated to their disadvantage; and they are prevented from leaving their jobs or changing employers. Its authors made a series of recommendations about how the conditions could be improved.

The reforms need not be costly, the report says, but “a serious and systematic campaign” should make clear to all involved that workers “must arrive debt-free and without having paid recruitment fees, costs and charges before departure or after arrival from their salaries”. All costs should paid by their employers. Any fees paid by workers to recruitment agencies “should be reclassified as a form of bribe” and banned, says the report.

Standardised recruitment

The report said the Qatari government must seek to ensure “standardised ethical recruitment practices” in the labourers’ home countries by developing intergovernmental agreements.

The recruitment agencies that Qatari firms use should be ethical and take nothing from migrant workers. Sub-agents working in local regions should also be regulated through an accreditation process.

The report suggests that Qatar establish its own agency with branches in the labour-sending countries, helping to set benchmarks for the entire recruitment process. Agencies based in Qatar that lease labour on a temporary basis should also be monitored.

Although the report’s authors emphasise that their data on recruitment fees was limited and “cannot be seen as representative”, it found charges by private recruitment agencies running from $900 to $1,400, and cites stories of other labourers paying up to $5,000.

To pay these costs, the report says workers often sell family assets and enter into debt with usurious interest rates of up to 60 per cent. The authors also found evidence of kickbacks of $200-$600 for each worker paid by agents to employees of Qatari companies to secure labour supply contracts.

The report says that workers often sign contracts under duress at the airport and it recommends these should be standardised and signed in labourers’ native languages, with time to dwell on them before flying to Qatar.

To prevent contracts being subsequently changed to the disadvantage of workers, further systems should be added, including a requirement to register them with the Labour Ministry. A “more independent complaints mechanism” should also be established.

The survey found that if workers complain their actual wages, hours of work, food allowances and overtime arrangements differ from what they were promised, “they are routinely told that if they do not accept it, they can return home”, because their employers know debt means this is not an option. Such practices violate numerous international protocols, the report says, but complaints go unheeded.

The authors add that “employing companies in Qatar acting in an intimidating manner towards migrant workers is a fundamental element in the conditions of debt bondage and forced labour revealed in this report”.

Visa restrictions

“The exit visa system needs serious attention for reform that could include the judicial termination of travel bans,” says the report. It recommends employer refusal to issue exit visas required to leave the country or no-objection certificates (NOCs) to change jobs should automatically be referred to independent review. Exit visas and NOCs should also be guaranteed, particularly for stranded or cheated workers.

It adds that contractors and subcontractors in Qatar should be monitored to make sure workers’ visas fit in with the positions they hold. This would cut down on the illegal trade in “free visas” that can result in workers getting caught up in illegal arrangements where they must pay fees to their sponsors.

Further recommendations included a minimum wage for all occupations in the construction sector, regardless of nationality. The survey found Indian masons were earning $202-$243 a month, while a labourer from Turkey was paid $1,135 to do the same job.

And to tackle non-payment and delayed wages, systems should be brought in to give all workers bank accounts and require employers to pay directly into these.

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