Friday is a day off – and a game day.
Ramona Schelbert, Tobias Ochsenbein
On his only day off of the week, Suhail (30) gets up at 4am, packs his cricket kit and drives to a gravel wasteland in the industrial area. Shortly before 6 a.m., the thermometer is still just under 30 degrees, the light is soft and hazy, he is already sweating on an improvised playing field.
Friday is a day off in Qatar – and a game day. Sri Lankan workers have formed a cricket league to indulge in their national sport. Switch off, let go, recharge your batteries for the next work week. All compatriots, you mostly keep to yourself, it’s their surrogate family here.
Suhail came to Doha five years ago. He works as an accountant and has a comparatively good job. He earns 10,000 ryals a month, the equivalent of CHF 2,700. That’s ten times the government minimum wage of 1,000 ryals on which most migrant workers live. “We’re only here to make money. We are paid better here than at home,” says Suhail. “That’s why we leave our family and relatives at home.” They send a large part of their income home.
Hundreds of buses bring workers to construction sites
His friends here are site workers, security guards, clerks, cleaners. They build city center towers and streets, deliver food, drive taxis. In the past ten years, workers have built eight stadiums for the football World Cup. Works that Qataris do not pursue.
Most workers toil six days a week, between ten and twelve hours. They work day and night, often in brutal heat. Not far from the cricket ground there is a huge lot with hundreds of buses parked on it. They drive the workers to the construction site at the start of the shift and take them back to their accommodation after the shift.
According to the UN, migrant workers make up 88 percent of the population of Qatar, and the country has the highest rate of migrant workers in the world. Talking to them officially is undesirable in Qatar. As a journalist in Qatar, you need a permit for everything, but you don’t get one for this – even after numerous requests.
This has to do with the work situation of these migrants. Human rights organizations describe them as precarious. They accuse Qatar of exploiting the workers. Many died on the construction sites. Officials speak of a few dozen, human rights organizations of several thousand dead – just during the construction work for the World Cup infrastructure. With the economic boom in the Gulf States, the kafala system was introduced. Kafala is Arabic and can be translated as surety or guarantee. The workers are dependent on their employers and can only change jobs or leave the country with their consent.
View at workers in Qatar: “The government doesn’t want us to see these pictures”(05:22)
Qatari two-class society
Qatar has officially abolished this system and introduced a number of reforms, such as the minimum wage. The law also requires employers to pay allowances of at least 300 and 500 ryals respectively to cover the cost of food and lodging if they do not provide these services directly. However, Amnesty International’s “Reality Check 2021”, an analysis of labor reform in Qatar, concluded that progress has stagnated and old abusive practices have resurfaced. Roughly months of unpaid wages. Just last weekend, the Reuters news agency also reported that the Qatari authorities had banned several thousand workers from their accommodation.
Anyone who asks guest workers who speak to journalists about this will only hear positive things. It is difficult to judge whether this is actually true or whether it is just an attempt not to attract attention. “The Qataris don’t treat us badly,” says Ghanaian Isaac (34). He has been working as a customer service provider for the Doha Metro for three years and says: “I’m just chasing money here, I get accommodation and food three times a day.” There are only problems if you don’t follow the rules here. «We are free, but we are afraid of being expelled. Nobody wants to break the law. Because otherwise you’ll be gone overnight,” says Isaac. And Suhail says: “I work in a pleasant working environment, we are respected.”
“Only here to make money”
In fact, however, there is a two-class society in Qatar: the 300,000 Qatari citizens, who are a minority in their own country, are doing well financially. You pay no taxes, the healthcare system, electricity, water and education are free. Everyone has the right to secure employment, and there is practically no unemployment in Qatar. Foreigners can hardly ever obtain Qatari citizenship – not even those who have lived in Qatar for over 40 years. Like Mounir Nassif (65).
Nassif came to Doha from Lebanon in 1977. He opened a small confectionery and called it «Patisserie Suisse». However, it has nothing to do with Switzerland. Nassif sells cakes and sweets from the Middle East. He says: “Switzerland stands for quality, that’s why my shops are called that.” Today he has twelve branches and 280 employees – all migrant workers.
Mounir Nassif sits in the windowless office at his headquarters and has the kind look of a grandfather. “These people – including me – are just here to make money. It’s child’s play if you follow the two most important rules.” By that he means: Don’t get involved in politics and don’t use drugs.
Some of his employees work seven days a week, he says. So that they would not have time to spend money and could send as much as possible home. As an employer, he is obliged to provide them with accommodation as well. They live in rooms he has rented, four of them on 42 square meters, and usually stay for two years. How long is the work visa valid?
As an entrepreneur, Nassif has to pay ten percent tax on annual sales. He only owns 49 percent of his company. Because: By law, every foreign company must be at least 51 percent Qatari-owned. “The Qataris don’t work with their hands,” he says and smiles. “They are chiefs above all.” And yet Nassif is one of the few well-off among the more than two million foreigners in Qatar. He shows pictures of his villa in Lebanon and films of his hobby, hunting. He has just returned from his long vacation in his home country.
Suhail will have to wait until next year for vacation. He and his friends travel to Sri Lanka for a few weeks at most once a year. What remains until then is her longing for her old homeland, for family and maybe a professional cricket match in the stadium.