Like many of the Gulf States, Qatar is heavily dependent of foreign expatriate workforce to help fuels its growth. Demographically, Qataris make up less than 25% of the 800,000 people living in the country, with the remaining 600,000 or so people being expats or children. With a reported per capita income of $62,914 in Qatar, the country is clearly doing very well. Skilled expatriates usually negotiate healthy tax free salaries while many unskilled labourers come out with enough to send back to their families. Unfortunately, large numbers of foreign labourers are still having a tough time. From non-payment to abandonment, the plight and rights of these labourers is a topic that has been making the rounds in the Qatari Blogosphere.
Stranded workers are workers whose sponsors (i.e., employers) have abandoned them in one way or another. For those of us who are expatriate workers in Qatar, our employers have a much larger role in our lives than they would in the States. Your employer isn't just the person who hires you and pays you; they also provide your housing and possibly your food and, most importantly, they are your gateway to government services. When you first arrive in Qatar, it is your sponsor who gets you a valid visa and residency permit; when you leave, it is your sponsor who gets you an exit visa and a plane ticket home. So workers who have been abandoned by their employers are not just unemployed; they also become illegal immigrants. They can't legally get new jobs, and technically shouldn't still be in the country. Yet, even if they want to leave, they can't get an exit visa, let alone afford to fly home!
…the issue of sponsorship was raised, with one Kuwaiti arguing that the government, rather than companies or individuals, ought to sponsor migrant workers. I think that the current sponsorship system is responsible for much of the injustice against migrant workers in Qatar, so that was exciting to hear.
Meanwhile, Cornellian, a medical student in Qatar, shared her first hand experience at a Medical Camp that was held to provide basic check-ups and health education to foreign labourers. She called it a “reality check” as she had never dealt the manual labourers in Qatar:
I went to my booth and waited for people to approach so I can start explaining stuff. Slowly people started approaching and my first thought was “Oh God!”. I know it was cruel of me, but I mean after being in Qatar for this long, you tend to avoid low-class workers. But I had to face them if I wanted to be a proper doctor, my mission was to help people regardless of who they were. And so I did.
As I started talking to more people, they started telling me about their pains, asking for advice, talking about Qatar, their life here, family, and slowly I started learning more about them. And then it hit me…
They weren't just workers. They were dads, sons, and brothers. They face problems everyday, they face a life that I could never imagine living. They face abuse and poverty, that I could never bare. More importantly, they wanted to learn. I felt like they were clinging on to my words, listening intentively, asking questions, wanting to now more. I was amazed.
Next time you walk down the street and see a bunch of workers, or drive by and see a bus full of them. Don't just look at them as a bunch of workers but see them as individuals who have been through so much and who fight for their survival everyday. These people are much braver than I'll ever be.
Vicente from Camels and Roundabouts tells the story of having to hire domestic help. He covers a few important issues. Firstly, the continual rejection of his wife's application since the system is not set up to deal with women as being a “sponsor” (as opposed to her husband). He contrasts this with his wife's male colleagues who had no problem at all in doing the exact same thing.
Second, he explains why getting domestic help is not just helpful for the family – but for the person they are trying to since :
…most importantly, we needed Donna’s help for Donna’s sake herself. She is actually Carol’s first cousin. Ten years ago, when Donna was in her third year of BS Therapy at FEU, her father working at Saudi Arabia was intentionally run over by a speeding car. He was crossing a street and signalled at an approaching car to slow down. According to witnesses, the driver must have misinterpreted the hand signal as a bad sign and so deliberately bumped him. At first, only the side mirror hit Donna’s father. He could have survived. But, the car came back and ran over him killing him instantly. The rich driver went scotch free because nobody was willing to testify. The murder shattered Donna’s dream of ever finishing her education. Then, early last year, her mother also died after a long bout with breast cancer. Since the death of his father, Donna had stopped studying and had been trying to help the family by doing odd jobs everywhere. Before coming here she was working in a pharmacy at Pampanga from 7AM to 7 PM, six days a week, with a monthly salary of US$50.
[now] Donna herself is doing fine. Her monthly US$600 salary is net savings for her. She can now plan for the future.