Qatar workers face old problems despite reform promises

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Issa Saad Al-Jafali Al-Nuaimi (C), Qatar's Minister of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs, speaks to the press during the inauguration of the International Labor Organization (ILO)'s Qatar project office, in Doha on April 29, 2018. (AFP)
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In this file photo taken on May 04, 2015, foreign workers are seen at the construction site of the al-Wakrah football stadium, one of the Qatar's 2022 World Cup stadiums. (AFP / MARWAN NAAMANI)
Updated 10 May 2018
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Qatar workers face old problems despite reform promises

DOHA: Just a 10-minute drive from the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) new office in the Qatari capital, Nabin explains how his employer has not paid his wages in two months.
He is one of hundreds of workers helping transform Msheireb, a rundown district in Doha, into an area of hotels, luxurious apartments and Qatar’s very own “Wall Street” financial center at a total cost of some $5.5 billion.
The Nepalese laborer should receive 1,100 Qatar riyals a month ($300, 250 euros), but says he has to survive on considerably less — in one of the world’s richest countries.
“In my country I was promised 1,100, but for the past two months I haven’t got my salary,” he said.
“They just gave me 100 riyals in advance.”
Like all workers interviewed for this article, the 20-year-old asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.
Resting in a patch of shade on the pavement during his lunch break as the midday heat reaches 36 degrees Celsius (97 Fahrenheit), Nabin said with no salary he is unable to buy food.
His is forced to rely on food at his labor camp, where he said he’s been served expired chicken.
Nearby, other workers rest after their morning shift, telling of endless problems.
Sumon, a Bangladeshi carpenter, said his company has refused to hand him his residency permit (RP) — an essential ID card used every day to prove legal residence and required to access anything from telephone contracts to opening a bank account.
“I gave 7,000 riyals to get an RP but the company has not made it,” he said.
“I said give it to me, I need it to travel, but I did not get any RP.”
He has complained to the courts, but a year on, he is still waiting.
“If I can get my RP, I will leave,” said the 24-year-old.
His colleague Ashik recounted how he paid 10,000 riyals — more than six months’ salary — to his sponsor just to obtain a No Objection Certificate, a document that permits a worker to transfer from one company to another.
He then had to pay another 10,000 riyals to get his new contract, he said.
Several workers complain of harassment from police demanding money from those without RPs.
They say one unlucky colleague was flown straight out of the country when he could not produce his permit.

Under huge pressure
The ILO opened its Qatar office on April 29, after signing a three-year agreement with the government to oversee fundamental labor change.
Qatar has come under huge pressure over its treatment of workers since winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup.
Limited reforms have failed to stem criticism from human rights groups and unions which accuse the Gulf state of widespread worker abuse.
Under its agreement with the UN agency, Qatar has committed to an overhaul including introducing a minimum wage — set at 750 riyals per month — establishing workers’ committees, and scrapping the exit visa where workers need their employers’ permission to leave the country.
That commitment has split Qatar’s critics.
Some, including the International Trade Union Confederation, are fully behind Doha.
Others, including some human rights advocates, remain cautious — skeptical that reform pledges have remained largely unfulfilled.
Previous promises to end the exit visa system have never been acted upon, according to critics.
The plight of workers in Msheireb echoes the sad stories of numerous workers heard since FIFA handed Qatar the World Cup in 2010.
It also shows that reforms already in place — including a law ensuring wages are paid in full — have failed to protect the most vulnerable.
Back in Msheireb, Ashik said those who will be most impacted by the latest reforms have heard nothing about them.
Sumon argues the minimum wage needs to be doubled to 1,500 to allow those building Qatar to enjoy a decent life.
“Everything is difficult because it is so expensive here,” he said. “We are here for our families to give a better life to them.”
At the end of their lunch break, the workers move slowly back from their resting place in “old” Msheireb to its gleaming new replacement, emerging on the Doha skyline in preparation for the World Cup.
Asked if they have any interest in football, Sumon replied: “No. They will throw us away when this project is finished.
“The football is not for us, it’s for different people.”


Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

Updated 19 February 2019
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Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

  • The gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to be widening
  • American rabbinical students plant olive trees in a Palestinian village

AT-TUWANI, West Bank: Young American rabbinical students are doing more than visiting holy sites, learning Hebrew and poring over religious texts during their year abroad in Israel.
In a stark departure from past programs focused on strengthening ties with Israel and Judaism, the new crop of rabbinical students is reaching out to the Palestinians. The change reflects a divide between Israeli and American Jews that appears to be widening.
On a recent winter morning, Tyler Dratch, a 26-year-old rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, was among some two dozen Jewish students planting olive trees in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the southern West Bank. The only Jews that locals typically see are either Israeli soldiers or ultranationalist settlers.
“Before coming here and doing this, I couldn’t speak intelligently about Israel,” Dratch said. “We’re saying that we can take the same religion settlers use to commit violence in order to commit justice, to make peace.”
Dratch, not wanting to be mistaken for a settler, covered his Jewish skullcap with a baseball cap. He followed the group down a rocky slope to see marks that villagers say settlers left last month: “Death to Arabs” and “Revenge” spray-painted in Hebrew on boulders and several uprooted olive trees, their stems severed from clumps of dirt.
This year’s student program also includes a tour of the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, a visit to an Israeli military court that prosecutes Palestinians and a meeting with an activist from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel.
The program is run by “T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,” a US-based network of rabbis and cantors.
Most of T’ruah’s membership, and all students in the Israel program, are affiliated with the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements — liberal streams of Judaism that represent the majority of American Jews. These movements are marginalized in Israel, where rabbis from the stricter Orthodox stream dominate religious life.
The T’ruah program, now in its seventh year, is meant to supplement students’ standard curricular fare: Hebrew courses, religious text study, field trips and introductions to Jewish Israeli society. Though the program is optional, T’ruah says some 70 percent of the visiting American rabbinical students from the liberal branches of Judaism choose to participate.
The year-long program is split into one semester, focused on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and another, on alleged human rights abuses inside Israel.
T’ruah claims its West Bank encounters aren’t one-off acts of community service, but experiences meant to be carried home and disseminated to future congregations.
“We want to propel them to action, so they invite their future rabbinates to work toward ending the occupation,” said Rabbi Ian Chesir-Teran, T’ruah’s rabbinic educator in Israel.
The group began its trip in the most Jewish of ways, a discussion about the weekly Torah portion that turned into a spirited debate about the Ten Commandments.
“The Torah says don’t covet your neighbor’s fields, and we’re going to a Palestinian village whose private land has been confiscated for the sake of covetous Jews building settlements,” Chesir-Teran said.
As their bus trundled through the terraced hills south of Hebron, students listened to a local activist’s condensed history of the combustible West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
As part of interim peace deals in the 1990s, the West Bank was carved up into autonomous and semi-autonomous Palestinian areas, along with a section called Area C that remains under exclusive Israeli control.
The destinations of the day — the Palestinian villages of At-Tuwani and Ar-Rakkes — sit in Area C, also home to around 450,000 Israeli settlers. Palestinians seek all of the West Bank as the heartland of a hoped-for independent state.
The group was guided by villagers to their olive trees — an age-old Palestinian symbol and a more recent casualty of the struggle for land with Israeli settlers.
Israeli security officials reported a dramatic spike last year in settler violence against Palestinians.
Yishai Fleisher, a settler spokesman, blamed the attacks on the “atmosphere of tension” in the West Bank. “We’re against vigilantism, unequivocally,” he said.
As Israeli soldiers watched from the hilltop, Palestinians and Jews dug their fingers into the crumbling soil, setting down roots where holes torn out of the field hinted at recent vandalism.
Dratch said he came of age in Pennsylvania during the violent years of the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. “My religious education was steeped in fear of Palestinians,” he said.
But in college, Dratch’s ideas about Israel changed. Dratch says he still supports Israel, while opposing its policies in the West Bank. “I realized I could be Zionist without turning my back on my neighbor, on Palestinians,” he said.
With hundreds of young American rabbis sharing such sentiments, some in Israel find the trend alarming.
“I worry about a passion for social justice becoming co-opted by far-left politics among future American Jewish leaders,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research center in Jerusalem.
“Future rabbis are marginalizing themselves from the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews,” he added.
As Israel heads toward elections in April, opinion polls point to another victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his religious, nationalist allies.
In the US, meanwhile, surveys show American Jews, particularly the younger generation, holding far more dovish views toward Palestinians and religious pluralism. Netanyahu’s close friendship with President Donald Trump has further alienated many American Jews, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
Two weeks after visiting At-Tuwani, the group received disheartening news: half of the 50 trees they’d planted had been uprooted, apparently by settlers. The students scrambled to make plans to replant.
Dratch said that while his time in Israel has provided him with plenty of reasons to despair, he still harbors hope for change.
“We’ll be sharing these stories to give people a full picture of what it means to care about this place,” he said.