Qatar recently arrested at least 60 foreign workers who protested going months without pay and deported some of them, an advocacy group said, just three months before Doha hosts the 2022 World Cup.
The move comes as Qatar faces intense international scrutiny over its labor practices ahead of the quadrennial soccer tournament. Like other Gulf Arab nations, Qatar heavily relies on foreign labor. The workers’ protest a week ago — and Qatar’s reaction to it — could further fuel the concern.
The head of a labor consultancy investigating the incident said the detentions cast new doubt on Qatar’s pledges to improve the treatment of workers.
“Is this really the reality coming out?” said Mustafa Qadri, executive director of the group Equidem.
In a statement to the Associated Press on Sunday night, Qatar’s government acknowledged that “a number of protesters were detained for breaching public safety laws.” It declined to offer any information about the arrests or any deportations.
Video footage posted online showed some 60 workers angry about their salaries protesting Aug. 14 outside the Doha offices of Al Bandary International Group, a conglomerate that includes construction, real estate, hotels, food service and other ventures in its portfolio. Some of those demonstrating hadn’t received their wages for as long as seven months, Equidem said.
The protesters blocked an intersection on Doha’s C Ring Road in front of the Al Shoumoukh Tower. The footage matched known details of the street, including several massive portraits of Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, looking down on pedestrians.
Al Bandary International Group, which is privately owned, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Qatari government acknowledged that the firm hadn’t paid wages and that the Labor Ministry would pay “all delayed salaries and benefits” to those affected.
“The company was already under investigation by the authorities for nonpayment of wages before the incident, and now further action is being taken after a deadline to settle outstanding salary payments was missed,” the government said.
Qadri said police later arrested the protesters and held them in a detention center, where some described being in stifling heat without air-conditioning. Doha’s temperature this week reached nearly 106 degrees.
Qadri described police telling those held that if they could strike in hot weather, they could sleep without air-conditioning.
One detained worker who called Equidem from the detention center described seeing as many as 300 of his colleagues there from Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nepal and the Philippines. He said some had been paid wages after the protest while others hadn’t. His comments could not be corroborated.
Qatar, like other Gulf Arab nations, has in the past deported demonstrating foreign workers and tied residency visas to employment. The right to form unions remains tightly controlled and available only to Qataris, as is the country’s limited right to assembly, according to the Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House.
A small, energy-rich nation on the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar 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 woes of the country’s migrant labor force.
Since the world soccer body awarded the World Cup to Qatar in 2010, the country has taken some steps to overhaul its employment practices. That includes eliminating its so-called kafala employment system, which tied workers to their employers, who had say over whether they could leave their jobs or even the country.
Qatar also has adopted a minimum monthly wage of $275 for workers and required food and housing allowances for employees not receiving that directly from their employers.
Activists like Qadri have called on Doha to do more, particularly when it comes to ensuring that workers receive their pay on time and are protected from abusive employers.
“Have we all been duped by Qatar over the last several years?” Qadri said, suggesting that recent reforms might have been “a cover” for authorities to allow prevailing labor practices to continue.
The World Cup will start this November.