How the Kafala System Enslaves Workers in Qatar – Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Joseph, 33, had only been with the company for over a year. It was his first time to go abroad and it was proving to be a traumatic experience for him. He spoke of other losses – emotional ones which are not as easy to quantify but just as painful to bear.
“Qatar made me single,” said Joseph. The distance and time apart strained his marriage. De facto separation came later when he could no longer send home money. His wife believed that he had squandered the money womanizing. “I don’t have enough money to get a taxi to take me to the mall, where would I get money to spend on a girlfriend?”
The men had raised complaints to their embassies, to the labor ministry, and to their company. They had staged “no work protests” inside construction sites. “When we tell each other no mafi (no work), that means we will go to the site but we will not work. We will just sit around and do nothing,” said Joseph.
Qatari laws prohibit public assemblies and protests and their on-site protests are a calculated act of defiance.
I asked the most obvious question: Why can’t their company pay them?
Joseph replied by enumerating the subcontracting hierarchy where the main developer or principal contractor of a construction project subcontracts various companies that specialize in different aspects of construction. These subcontractors, in turn, contract supply agencies that provide manpower by the bulk.
As Joseph explained it, in the supply chain totem pole, their employer is notches below the main project developer, the top guns who control the purse strings.
Subcontracting is a common practice in the construction industry. Erecting a building is done in phases that require specialized skill at each phase, like plumbing or electrical, and mechanical wiring.
In a highly unregulated labor market, subcontracting allows tiers of worker exploitation. Liability is passed around from subcontractor to developer to supply agency. Throw in the kafala sponsorship system and you have developers operating with impunity, and workers who are at the bottom of the subcontracting labor chain suffering the most.
Subcontracting
According to UK-based NGO Engineers Against Poverty, it is normal practice in Qatar for principal contractors to pay subcontractors only when they are paid by their clients. The practice is often referred to as “pay when paid.”
According to an Engineers Against Poverty 2014 report, “Most subcontractors don’t have access to working capital and cannot pay their workers until they themselves get paid.”
Noel Tolentino, programme officer of Migrante International, said they have received over 100 complaints of delayed and unpaid wages leveled against the company that Joseph and his colleagues work for. “That’s just one company. There are many more construction companies in Qatar and the complaints are usually all the same.”
Like most of the Gulf states, Qatar operates under the kafala sponsorship system. Workers are prevented from leaving or changing jobs without the permission of the employer. If a worker stops going to work to escape an abusive work environment, the employer can charge him with absconding. The worker’s status then becomes undocumented and he runs the risk of arrest and deportation.
“This is a clear example of how workers are trapped by their employers,” said Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch (HRW) when we discussed the case of the 3 men. “These are all hallmarks of an unregulated labor system where under the kafala system, employers have so much control over their workers. Workers have little recourse to seek justice. It is cowboy capitalism.”

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