Workers protest in Qatar over unpaid wages amid pandemic

More than 100 workers protested in Qatar over unpaid wages during the coronavirus pandemic. Their plight is exacerbated by their living conditions, which make them all the more vulnerable to the highly contagious disease, which has already infected upwards of 55,000 in the country.

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Migrant workers staged a rare protest in Qatar over unpaid wages, the government said Saturday, at a time of economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and rock-bottom oil prices. Workers in Qatar are even more susceptible to the disease due to cramped living quarters.

Images on social media showed more than 100 men blocking a main road in the Msheireb district of the capital Doha late Friday, clapping and chanting as police looked on.

Workers protest peacefully in Qatar over unpaid wages

“In response to the late settlement of salaries, a small number of expatriate workers conducted a peaceful protest in the Msheireb area on May 22,” the labour ministry said in a statement.

“Following an immediate investigation (the ministry) has taken steps to ensure that all salaries will be promptly paid in the coming days.”

Legal action has been taken against the companies involved in non-payment of salaries, it added.

Below par living and working conditions for workers in Qatar

The oil-rich Gulf is reliant on the cheap labour of millions of foreigners, mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Many live in squalid camps far from the region’s showy skyscrapers and malls.

Almost 90 percent of Qatar’s population are expatriate workers as the country completes dozens of mega-projects ahead of the 2022 World Cup. Since construction for the World Cup began six years ago, 34 migrants have lost their lives. Of those 34 deaths, 31 have been classified as “non-work related,” a term largely used to describe sudden deaths from unexplained cardiac or respiratory failure. Hundreds more die each year while working on other construction projects.

One migrant worker at a Qatari company that provides maintenance, cleaning, plumbing, and other services, told Human Rights Watch that he and between 800 and 1,000 other employees refused to report to work on August 5, 2019. The employee said there had been repeated threats from management to deport the workers if they refused to sign new contracts substantially reducing their wages.

The worker said that he had already been forced to sign a contract when he arrived in Doha in 2018, under threat of deportation, for lower wages than he had been promised by a recruitment agent in his country. “The sponsor blamed it on the agent,” said the worker. “He said to me, ‘sign it or go back home.’” Hamad International Airport, Qatar’s main airport, is among the company’s clients.

Impact of coronavirus on workers in Qatar

The coronavirus and its devastating economic impact have left many workers sick and others unemployed, unpaid and at the mercy of sometimes unscrupulous employers. There are currently more than 55,000 cases of coronavirus in the country.

The migrant workers’ cramped living quarters and lack of access to health care, proper sanitation, and nutritious food imperils an already highly vulnerable group of people. On March 11, 238 migrants in a single residential compound in the Industrial Area—a vast swath of land that’s the site of factories, warehouses, and migrant workers’ accommodation just outside Doha, Qatar—tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, dozens more cases have been identified that appear to be linked to the initial outbreak.

The virus has also had an impact on economic activity in Qatar.

It was the country worst affected by the coronavirus in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as of March.

Read more: Qatar restricts entry, announces $23 bn stimulus over virus

“We’ve taken a  number of decisions, including suspending inward flights to Qatar starting from Wednesday evening for two weeks,” assistant foreign minister Lolwah al-Khater told media in Doha.

The measure could be extended at the end of the initial two week period, she said, and will be accompanied by a $23 billion economic stimulus package that will include $2.75 billion to shore-up the stock market.

The workers protest in Qatar is something that is not seen very often, but the impact of the coronavirus has caused them to take desperate measures.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk