By Sam Bollier and Azad Essa
AL KHOR, Qatar — By day, they build one of the richest countries in the world. By night, many of them seek reprieve from what the Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI), a federation of labor unions, calls "crowded, squalid camps."
Cramped rooms, rows of bunk beds and poor washroom facilities — along the back streets of Al Khor, Qatar's second-largest city, thousands of migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, live in conditions far removed from the glamorous high-rises they've helped create.
Most workers head for the Gulf to escape a life of poverty, but some say they are now disappointed and frustrated by their living and working conditions.
"(The situation in) India is not so good, but we were told this (place) would be better," Lakhsman Rao, a "helper" at a construction firm, told Al Jazeera. "We left our families to come here," he said from a room shared with nine other men in a labor camp set up on the outskirts of Al Khor. His name has been changed to protect his identity.
Allegations of rights abuses have long been raised against companies based in Qatar. After being named host of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, the country has faced increased scrutiny over dubious labor conditions.
This week a delegation of the BWI, which is based in Geneva, traveled to Qatar on a fact-finding trip to investigate working conditions in the small Gulf country.
The mission "found disturbing evidence of wrong practices and gathered testimonies about the violations of internationally accepted labor standards," said Ambet Yuson, general secretary of the BWI, on Thursday. "One worker in a slavelike situation is one too many. This is not acceptable," he told a press conference in Doha, Qatar's capital.
Recent reports of forced labor and workplace deaths have pushed the country's migrant-worker system into the spotlight. Forty-four Nepali workers died in Qatar this summer, many from heart attacks, while thousands of other migrant workers suffer from unpaid salaries, bad living conditions and exploitative labor-recruitment agencies, according to an article in The Guardian.
Qatari officials dispute the paper's claims. Hussain al-Mulla, undersecretary of the Ministry of Labor, said the government "has retained a legal firm to examine the complaint raised in the foreign newspaper report on the number of injuries and deaths. However, we initiated our own investigations and established that the number mentioned is excessive and exaggerated. The death cases were of natural causes, not of work-related issues."
On Tuesday, Qatar's National Human Rights Committee — a branch of the government that helped facilitate the BWI's trip — took the delegation to a labor camp in Ras Laffan where conditions, said delegation members, appeared to be good.
'Earth and sky'
But afterward, Al Jazeera and some members of the delegation visited a labor camp in Al Khor where conditions were spartan. Thin strings tied between beds served as clotheslines, and cardboard boxes glued on the walls were used as toothbrush holders. One toilet was allocated for 10 men, workers said, and some of the wash areas were broken, without taps and plumbing.
These conditions violate compulsory standards set forth by Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, which prohibit bunk beds and stipulate that only up to four workers may share a room. But rights groups have said a culture of impunity prevails, with lax oversight and enforcement.
Paid roughly 1,200 Qatari riyals ($330) a month, the men perform work that includes tiling and plastering at Lusail City, where many construction projects are under way, including a stadium for the World Cup. They said they were in Qatar on temporary visas valid for just three months, making them ineligible to obtain state-issued IDs or government health insurance.
Lakhsman Rao, originally from Andhra Pradesh in India, said he had to pay 70,000 rupees ($1,500) to a recruitment agent in India in order to get a job in Doha. He was promised a salary of 1,000 riyals ($273) back in India, but upon arriving he learned he would be paid only 800 riyals.
Yet just across the road in another camp, conditions seemed to mostly abide by Qatar's labor laws. A mobile-crane operator living there described the contrast between his conditions and those at the camp across the road as "the difference between earth and sky."
His compound was neatly arranged, the rooms clean. A recreation facility with a badminton court was ringed with posters conveying messages such as "The dangers of skipping breakfast" and the benefits of exercise. One man, an air-conditioning technician, showed Al Jazeera the room he shared with one co-worker, saying he made 3,200 riyals ($878) a month, including overtime.
Others in the compound made less, 900 to 1,100 riyals a month. Though they said their work is safe and they are generally satisfied, they complained that the food served there is bland and salary increases are rare.
'They could tear my passport'
A common complaint of rights groups is that although labor laws exist in Qatar, they are not adequately enforced. "Qatar needs to enforce its good laws, such as prohibiting employers from confiscating passports and banning illegal recruitment fees," said the BWI in a press statement.
One member of the delegation said workers do not seem to be well informed of the rights they have. "The chairman (of the National Human Rights Committee) told us, 'Everyone in Qatar knows our phone number, and everyone can come to us'" if they have problems, said Dietmar Schaefers, vice president of the IGBAU trade union in Germany. But, he claimed, "no workers have heard of it."
Labor unions are illegal in Qatar, making it difficult for workers to agitate for better conditions. The only exception is workers' committees, which can be formed only if at least 100 Qatari citizens join as members. Expatriates, who make up the majority of the labor force, cannot join, and the committees are not allowed to engage in any political activity.
Complicating matters is the kefala system, prevalent across the Gulf region, in which workers are sponsored by and bound to a single employer. In Qatar, sponsors must grant permission if workers want an exit visa to leave the country. Because of this tight control, rights groups say workers are often hesitant to report abuse. Rao told Al Jazeera that in his case, complaining to management would be futile: "If we raise our voice, they could tear my passport."
Al-Mulla countered that "the companies are complying with (Qatari labor) law ... (I) cannot say 100 percent, but at least 99 percent of businesses are … Once any complaint is raised by a worker, the laws governing the issue are put to application. The law is fully enforced."
On Wednesday the BWI delegation sought a meeting with the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, which is in charge of organizing the World Cup. After the committee said it would be unable to meet, the BWI staged a small action in front of the committee's offices, holding signs reading "Red card for FIFA." (The committee then scheduled a meeting with some BWI delegates later that day.)
After BWI's press conference on Thursday, Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, chairman of the National Human Rights Committee, told attendees at another press conference that the committee hopes to open a dialogue about labor conditions between groups like BWI and the Qatari government. But, he added, those concerned about human rights in Qatar should stay away from "propaganda" and "work quietly" to achieve their goals.
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa