ByÂ Aditi Thakker:
With Qatar having won the bid to host the 2020 FIFA World Cup, the country is going through an infrastructure revolution. The pace at which shopping malls, accommodation blocks and stadiums are being built is astonishing. Rightly so, all this construction requires workers. And where is Qatar getting them from? Qatar is a small island in the Persian Gulf. Of the local Qatari population, many are royalty and do not need to work. A lot of the population is educated and has better job prospects, than construction work. Hence, workers are imported. They come from some of the poorest regions of the Indian subcontinent and the stories they have to tell, show us the cruel face of migrant life in Qatar.
A research by the International Trade Union Confederation suggests that by the end of all the required construction for the World Cup, over 4000 migrant workers would have died due to work related disorders or accidents. The conditions that migrant workers are forced to work in, are not only dangerous but also degrading to human life. Most of these migrant workers are in the country illegally, without proper papers or permits. They often do not reveal their real age and thus many underage workers, sometime children, are forced into this slave trade. Agents in their home countries charge a hefty amount for landing them the job and forging documents to get them to Qatar. Once in Qatar, they’re denied pay for months on end. Not only this, the conditions they live in are unhygienic on a different level. These workers, working on building tops in the Qatar, in 50C heat are not even provided drinking water.
And why can’t they approach anyone for help? The Qatari police? Their embassy in Qatar? First, they are no longer in possession of their passports once they have arrived in Qatar. Regardless of how much their employer mistreats them, they cannot leave or change jobs since they are obliged to work with the one who sponsors their work permits. They can go to their country’s embassy, but that means they will no longer have their job, will not get paid for the work they have already done and will be deported to their home country.
Who really is to blame for this situation? The agents are fooling the workers, who are vulnerable, desperate for jobs and living in extreme poverty. The agents have a deal with the Qatari employers, who in turn do not pay these workers. Yes, this is the face of modern day slave labour. Should Qatar be doing more? Well they are signatories to international conventions that provide for protection of migrant workers abroad. Qatar government maintains that they will extend full support to workers who have entered the country and procured work legally. Working illegally in another country is an offense anyway.
South Asian governments are trying to set up organisations to let their populations know about the work conditions in the Middle East, and encouraging them to only take the legally endorsed channel of procuring work abroad, following measures like registering with their country’s embassy and so on. But is this enough? While South Asian governments may be trying to create employment opportunities for these workers in their home country itself, the agents always have a better deal abroad. Amidst the blame game, it is the migrant worker who suffers. In poor health, many migrant workers die on site. They leave their country with hopes of alleviating the poverty that has engulfed their family, building a better life and working hard, only to come back in coffins. For the ones who survive, the punishment is tougher.
This isn’t only about migrant workers dying; it is an attack on human dignity and deprivation of basic human rights. This exploitation is not limited to migrant workers in Qatar; ones living in other developing countries have similar tales to tell. Whether it is tailors working in sweatshops in Bangladesh, or the sexual exploitation of female workers in the Middle East, it is all about the way human beings have come to treat one another. I am writing about the current situation in Qatar today, but Dubai was no better during its days of economic boom, and probably still isn’t. Slave trade, bonded labour and endless exploitation of workers is rampant in much of the developing world; in Asia, Africa and South-Central America. We’re loaded with culture, but human dignity is something some of us just don’t understand.
While we talk about private corporations in Qatar and their poor policies in employment, let us not forget the countless people who suffered and died due to the non-payment of wages under NREGA in India, a government scheme that is deemed to be the world’s largest welfare program. Can we really blame Qatar, when our own countrymen are exploiting fellow countrymen? The number of young girls from Jharkhand sexually, physically and mentally abused while working in some of New Delhi’s upmarket localities, is staggeringly high. They are starved, regularly beaten and sometimes raped, denied wages and never allowed to return home, unless rescued. Well and easy to criticise Qatar, and so difficult to accept that it happens in our neighbourhood too.