Qatar: unpaid migrant construction workers left to go hungry - fresh revelations

Lee Trading and Contracting workers' accommodation in Qatar © Amnesty International

Hungry workers from Nepal and other poor countries owed £250,000 in unpaid wages

More than 80 migrant construction workers in Qatar who worked for nearly a year without pay on a prestigious tower block in Doha’s financial district are facing serious food shortages and need urgent government assistance, Amnesty International said today (18 December).

Amnesty is calling on the Qatari authorities to address the plight of the workers - employees of Lee Trading and Contracting (see - who have been working on the landmark Al-Bidda Tower in conditions that may amount to forced labour.

In mid-November, Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty visited the workers’ camp in the al-Sailiya industrial area. Conditions there are grim, with some workers sleeping on hard wooden boards without mattresses, and some of the temporary accommodation buildings dangerously unstable - the floors and ceilings in one bedroom are close to collapse. At the time Mr Shetty asked the Qatari ministries of Labour and Interior to address the situation at the company as a matter of priority.

These fresh revelations of worker abuse in Qatar come after a 166-page Amnesty report last month ­- The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup - which found multiple examples of abuses being committed against migrant construction workers in Qatar. The report strongly criticised the Qatari government for failing to safeguard workers’ rights. 

Salil Shetty said:

“It is shameful to think that in one of the richest countries in the world, migrant workers are being left to go hungry.

“This case illustrates perfectly the massive obstacles migrant workers face to getting justice in Qatar. It is now one month since we visited these men and found them living in desperate conditions. But their ordeal has not ended.  

“The Qatari government must step in now and end this crisis. The men have told us they simply want to collect the unpaid wages they are owed and leave the country. The ministries of Labour and Interior must deliver that as soon as possible. Doing so will signal that the government really means what it says about protecting workers’ rights.”

Unpaid wages

The group, which includes around 60 Nepalese workers as well as migrants from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nigeria, China and Bangladesh, are owed up to a year’s worth of salaries. They have been fitting out two floors - 38 and 39 - in Doha’s Al Bidda Tower, which has been dubbed Qatar’s Home of Footballbecause a number of football-related organisations have offices there.

Amnesty has seen documentation suggesting that in total Lee Trading and Contracting owes the workers around 1.5 million riyals (approximately £250,000). The exact reasons the company did not pay the men remain unclear. The project was completed in October, and since then the workers have been stranded in their camp, without pay and facing severe shortages of food.

One Nepalese labourer told researchers: “‘Do the work and we’ll pay you tomorrow’, they said … We kept doing the work and they kept changing the date and we never got paid.” The same man said that his sister had committed suicide in Nepal earlier this year because of the financial problems his family were facing. He had not been able to send them any money for many months and was unable to return home for her funeral.

The workers have all filed cases against Lee Trading and Contracting at Doha’s Labour Court to try to reclaim their salaries, but the court has asked them each to pay a fee of 600 riyals (£100) for an expert report on their case. Unless this is paid, the cases cannot progress. The workers told Amnesty that the court rejected their request for the fees to be waived because of their financial situation. Under Qatar’s Labour Law, workers are supposed to be exempt from paying judicial fees. 

Food shortages and other problems for the workers

The Lee Trading and Contracting employees are not being provided with fo​od or food allowances and have no salaries to buy food. The company had been providing them 250 riyals (£42) per month as a food allowance but this stopped in October and the workers are now being forced to borrow money to buy food. In mid-November several men complained to Amnesty of hunger. A representative of Lee Trading and Contracting told Amnesty that the food allowance had stopped in October because, “at the end of the day, I’m not making any money out of this company”.

Because of Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship system, the workers are tied to Lee Trading and Contracting and are not allowed to earn money by working at another company. In late November, Doha residents concerned about the workers’ situation collected donations and sent a delivery of food to provide temporary assistance. The workers also told researchers that the company had not issued them with valid residence permits, which are required under Qatari law, leaving them at risk of arrest. A Lee Trading and Contracting representative told Amnesty that the company was unable to pay for permits for the workers. 

Allegations of forced labour

Some of the men have alleged that when they stopped work in August in protest at the lack of salaries, a representative of Lee Trading and Contracting threatened them with jail. The men said that they returned to work as a result. The company representative in question has strongly denied this allegation to Amnesty. Under the International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention, forcing the men to work under threat of imprisonment would constitute forced labour.

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