LONDON: The outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) across much of the world has forced many governments to act, with most ordering restrictions on daily life and working conditions, and some even ordering complete shutdowns in a bid to contain the pandemic.
Even where governments have left the choice up to employers, many have taken the decision to let employees work from home where possible to slow the spread, with others shutting down work for the foreseeable future to protect lives.
That has not been the case in Qatar, though, where many migrant laborers are still working on crowded, dangerous construction sites as the country gears up to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Qatar’s government has banned “all forms of gatherings … including but not limited to the Corniche, public parks, beaches and social gatherings.”
But despite also putting in place near-total bans on the operating of gyms, malls and banks, construction sites were notably not part of the ban.
Qatar currently has the third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Middle East, at 500.
But as Doha struggles to respond to COVID-19, and with the World Cup inching closer, work on stadiums and other infrastructure projects has continued apace, despite the majority of its cases being migrants.
Workers at Qatari construction sites reportedly receive very little in the way of health checks, and commute to work on packed buses from the camps in which they live, where proximity to others, often with 10 people to a dormitory, is a near constant.
In a report by The Guardian, laborers said they felt they had no choice but to continue going to work, facing pressure both from the companies that employ them and the need to support their families overseas.
It is hard for employees in any context to refuse to go to work, but in systems like Qatar, where employers have extreme levels of control over workers, it would be particularly risky.
James Lynch, Expert on migrant workers
“I worry a lot about getting the virus, but I need the money,” said a Kenyan laborer, adding that he was not provided with protection beyond gloves and a mask on his 14-hour shifts.
A Nepalese worker told The Guardian: “I use a face mask, which I bought myself. Those who don’t have a mask cover their mouth with a piece of cloth.”
Migrant workers in Qatar face a difficult choice, especially with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many pay large fees to secure sponsorship allowing them to travel, are underpaid for their labor, and are only allowed to leave or change their jobs with the permission of their employers — a practice many have likened to slavery and which, despite promises by Doha to end it, remains widespread.
James Lynch, a director at Fair/Square Research and Projects, and an expert on migrant workers in Qatar, told The Guardian: “It is hard for employees in any context to refuse to go to work, but in systems like Qatar, where employers have extreme levels of control over workers, it would be particularly risky.”
He added: “New migration to Qatar has been halted as a result of the pandemic, so the impact of losing your job is now even worse than it would be anyway.”
Many have been outraged at the government’s response, with social media posts illustrating the extent of ill-feeling among members of Qatar’s migrant worker community.
“No one cares about our safety,” said one. “Do they think we don’t want to live? Do you think we don’t want to see our families?”
Another wrote: “We are not robots. We are not immune to the virus.”