Several international organizations are investigating the plight of over 1,000 migrant laborers in construction camps in Qatar who have opted to strike in response to at least three months without pay.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirmed they are aware of the situation after workers on sites being developed by a construction company linked to Qatar’s ruling family told WikiTribune that over 1,100 of them are currently without a steady supply of food, water or electricity.
The laborers, predominantly from India and Nepal, are also in bureaucratic limbo as their right to work is tied to their troubled employer, a situation that could draw scrutiny on the Gulf state’s promise to abolish a tied visa system opponents have said leads to exploitative employment practices.
The workers, some on contracts worth around 3,000 riyals ($820) per month, told WikiTribune that they stopped receiving their monthly salaries in January, but they worked through to March after they were assured by construction company HKH they would be paid soon. During this period, the workers, who live in four camps near the coastal town of Al Khor, were able to use credit to purchase food and supplies in in supermarkets in their camps.
The workers went on strike on March 28 and three weeks later their main supplies of water and electricity were cut off after HKH failed to pay for utility services. They said a lot of their subsistence since then has come from food, water and cash donations from people in Qatar, and some food donations from the Indian embassy and the Red Crescent.
HKH was founded in 1995 and developed into one of the country’s best-known construction companies, leading on high-profile projects including the headquarters of the state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera and the Doha Sheraton hotel.
Its founder, Hamad bin Khalid Al Thani, who died in 2012, was a member of the royal family. He was chief of Qatar’s police force and a cousin of Qatar’s former Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
According to HKH’s website, the company holds an “A” rating in construction – the highest band available under Qatar’s building regulations.
HKH did not respond to phone calls or emails for this story.
More than 500 of the migrant workers are from India, with around 450 from Nepal. Others come from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya and the Philippines.
A driver who has worked for HKH for a decade told WikiTribune the laborers were working on three projects – 32-floor tower block, a power station, and a complex of 110 villas – when the company stopped paying its staff.
Migrant workers in Qatar
Employment rights and the living conditions for migrant workers in Qatar have been subject to close international scrutiny in recent years, in part due to an extensive infrastructure overhaul required for the country to host the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar responded to criticism last November, announcing commitments to establish a minimum wage for migrant workers. The government also announced it would abolish its heavily criticized visa system, which links a worker’s right to work to its original employment sponsor.
However, Amnesty International said on April 27 that a timetable for abolishing the tied visa system has yet to be been provided. The human rights organization said addressing the vulnerable status of Qatar’s migrant laborers should be a priority for the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The United Nations agency has been working closely with the Qatari government and opened its first project office in Doha on April 30, calling it a “testament to the commitment of the State of Qatar to safeguard workers’ rights.”
Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has looked into the abuse of migrant labor in Qatar, told WikiTribune “if a situation like this can’t be resolved swiftly at this most critical juncture, it does not augur well for the ability of the ILO to convince the Qatari government to process with an effective and wide-ranging reform process.”
The ILO declined to confirm they are involved in resolving the situation in the HKH camps, as they cannot comment on individual cases.