Qatar recently arrested at least 60 foreign workers who protested after going months without pay, and deported some of them, an advocacy group has said three months before Doha hosts the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar is facing intense international scrutiny over its labor practices ahead of the tournament. Like other Gulf Arab nations, Qatar relies heavily on foreign labor, and the workers’ protest a week ago — and Qatar’s reaction to it — could fuel further concern.
The head of a labor consultancy investigating the incident said the arrests cast fresh doubt on Qatar’s promises to improve the treatment of workers. “Is this really the reality that comes to light?” asked Mustafa Qadri, chief executive of Equidem Research.
In a statement to The Associated Press on Sunday night, the Qatari government acknowledged that “some protesters were arrested for violating public security laws.” He declined to provide any information about the arrests or deportations.
Video footage posted online showed 60 workers protesting on August 14 outside the Doha offices of Al Bandary International Group, a conglomerate that includes construction, property, hotels, food services and other businesses.
Some of the protesters had not been paid their salaries for seven months, Equidem said.
Protesters blocked an intersection on Doha’s Ring Road C in front of the Al Shoumoukh Tower. The images match well-known details of the street, including several massive portraits of Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Qatar’s government acknowledged that Al Bandary International Group had failed to pay salaries and that its Ministry of Labor would pay “all delayed salaries and benefits” to those affected.
“The company was already under investigation by the authorities for non-payment of wages prior to the incident, and further action is now being taken after a deadline to settle outstanding wage payments was missed,” the government said.
Qadri said police later arrested the protesters and held them in a detention center where some described it as sweltering heat without air conditioning. The temperature in Doha this week reached 41ºC.
He said the police told the detainees that if they could attack when it was hot, they could sleep without air conditioning.
A detained worker who called Equidem from the detention center described up to 300 of his colleagues from Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nepal and the Philippines. He said some had been paid salaries after the protest while others had not.
Qatar, like other Gulf Arab nations, has in the past deported protesting foreign workers and tied residency visas to employment. The right to form unions remains tightly controlled and is only available to Qataris, as is the country’s limited right of assembly, according to the Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House.
The small, energy-rich nation on the Arabian Peninsula is home to the state-funded Al Jazeera satellite news network.
However, expression in the country remains tightly controlled. Last year, Qatar detained and later deported a Kenyan security guard who wrote and spoke publicly about the country’s migrant labor problems.
Since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar in 2010, the country has taken some steps to overhaul the country’s labor practices, including eliminating the so-called kafala employment system, which linked workers to employers, which they had decided whether they could leave their jobs or even the country.
Qatar has also adopted a monthly minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals (£232) for workers and required food and housing allowances for employees who do not receive them directly from their employers.
Activists like Qadri have called on Doha to do more, especially when it comes to ensuring workers receive their wages on time and are protected from abusive employers.
“Have we all been fooled by Qatar over the last few years?” he asked, suggesting that the recent reforms may have been “a cover” for the authorities to allow existing labor practices to continue.
The World Cup will start in November.