Despite the delays in wage payments by the ITCC, and the delay by the government in investigating the company, the employees continue to report to work. One worker told Human Rights Watch that at least 40 workers have submitted individual complaints to the labor dispute committee since June but have yet to be called in for a hearing. Driven to desperation, the workers have staged multiple protests demanding their owed wages.

“The police and the CID [Criminal Evidence and Information Department] came to the protests to try to scare us to end the strike,” said one ITCC employee. “They say that if we put photos or videos of the protests on social media we will be jailed.” Migrant workers are banned under Qatari law from joining unions and participating in strikes.

On October 27, Qatar’s Government Communications Office told Human Rights Watch that the Labor Ministry has placed ITCC on its list of banned companies and opened legal proceedings. These legal proceedings are separate from those submitted to the labor court directly by the workers.

In a case brought forward by the police, in a July 29 verdict, a copy of which Human Rights Watch has obtained, the Court of First Instance ruled against ITCC in absentia for failing to pay 285 employees their due wages, fining it 500,000 Qatari riyals (about US$137,000). A second verdict by the same court on October 13 ruled against ITCC in absentia for failing to pay 316 workers their due wages for January, February, and March, and fined it 2,000 Qatari riyals (about $550) for each employee whose wages were not paid. The ruling did not state whether the fine would be used to pay the workers’ wages.

“I think the court has only directed ITCC to pay us for three months of delayed salaries instead of a year’s worth,” one employee said. “No one has asked us when we were last paid.”

Out of the group of 400 workers facing delayed wages, 19 resigned in June 2019 after six months of non-payment of wages. For over a year, these 19 workers waited for their pending monthly wages, end-of-service benefits, and tickets to home countries. They began living and sleeping in the ITCC office as a form of protest. Officials from Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) visited the office on October 10, 2020 the workers told Human Rights Watch.

“During the NHRC visit, the company was embarrassed by us former employees sleeping in the office, so on October 12, 2020, the company said they would pay 30 percent of our outstanding dues if we leave the office,” said one former ITCC employee sleeping in the office. “We had no choice but to agree. The contract they made us sign says we have received 100 per cent of the payment, but verbally they said they will only pay 30 percent.” These 19 workers were paid 30 percent of their wages due in early November.

The Government Communications Office stated that although “ITCC is currently banned from operating in Qatar, it remains eligible for the loan program to provide salaries to its employees during the time frame requested in its application.” ITCC employees are worried about their lack of representation in these decisions.

The Communications Office said that ITCC has been registered to secure a loan through the Qatar Development Bank (QDB), which would be directly deposited in employees’ bank accounts “within the coming weeks.” Hundreds of employees have yet to be paid, though. Some employees who have access to the company’s records said that they have been hearing promises of a loan from the bank since March, and they cannot see any documentation to prove that ITCC has been registered for a bank loan.

The Communications Office also said that “employees seeking to change jobs while their Qatar ID card is expired are free to do so without bearing any of the financial cost”. However, a former ITCC employee said that ITCC did not renew his ID card and his new employer is demanding that he pay a 2,400 Qatari Riyal (US$ 659) fine for his expired ID card before he can start working for them.

Lalibela Cleaning & Services

Eight employees at Lalibela Cleaning & Services have also told Human Rights Watch that they have not received monthly wages since June. In lieu of wages, the company provides them with 150 Qatari riyals ($41) for food and water in an irregular and arbitrary manner. Moreover, Lalibela employees said they had not received Qatar identity cards, health cards, or ATM cards, which employers are required to provide, though they had been working for the company since at least 2019. The employees also said that, when paid, they are only paid for eight hours of work a day, even though they work at least 10. “I have a young son at home, he is starving because I am unable to send him money,” said one Lalibela employee from Kenya.

Lalibela employees also said they had no electricity at the lodging the company provided from the end of August to the end of October 2020, when the government intervened. The Communications Office confirmed to Human Rights Watch that in October, the owner provided them with documentation “to show that all utility bills have now been paid.”

Without Qatar ID cards, the workers have been unable to submit any official complaints of wage delays to the police or Labor Ministry. “We are scared to even leave our accommodation because we don’t have ID cards,” said an employee who doesn’t leave their lodgings except to go to work. “The police can arrest us for not having cards, even though it is not our fault.” The employees said they had telephoned the Kenyan and Ugandan embassies to ask how they can change employers, but the embassies told them they cannot proceed without ID cards.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Qatari government to inform them of the abuses of Lalibela employees. The Communications Office responded on October 27, stating that the Labor Ministry had opened an investigation into Lalibela about “salary deduction and delayed salary payments affecting some of the company’s workers.” The ministry then suspended the company and referred it to the judicial authorities for legal proceedings. The Communications Office said that the owner of the company has “pledged to settle all unpaid salaries within the next month” and the Labor Ministry is following up with them on a daily basis.

The statement said that Lalibela had suspended its activities due to Covid-19 and that the company and the employees agreed in writing to temporarily reduce monthly salaries. The workers Human Rights Watch spoke to at Lalibela say they have not agreed to anything about salary reduction in writing.

While the government has said that workers at both companies, even those with expired ID cards, are free to change jobs, they did not offer a response about how the workers at Lalibela are meant to continue with their current jobs, or search for another, without ever receiving ID cards, health cards, and ATM cards from their employer.

Worker’s Support and Insurance Fund

Earlier in 2020, the Qatari authorities stated that the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, created in 2018 and meant to support workers who have experienced labor abuse, is fully operational and had so far disbursed 14 million Qatari riyals ($3.85 million) in financial relief to workers. Under the law establishing the fund, it is to provide relief for workers who have won their cases at the Labor Dispute Resolution Committees but whose employers have failed to pay them.

For a worker to access the fund, the labor court must first issue a ruling against the company, then submit an enforcement request to the Ruling Enforcement Office. At this stage, if the company is unable to pay its workers, then a settlement request is submitted to the fund.

Despite over a year of delayed and unpaid wages, and despite filing cases against ITCC in June, at least 400 workers are still awaiting compensation. Under the laws that established the Labor Court, it must conclude cases within six weeks. But the ITCC workers are still waiting to be called in for an initial hearing five months after submitting complaints. For Lalibela workers, the Communications Office stated that a request can be submitted to the fund to disburse the workers’ owed salaries once the court issues a ruling against the company. However, given that they have been unable to file a case because of a lack of ID cards, this appears to be unlikely to happen.

The ITCC employees’ case shows that Qatar’s labor court takes far longer than the mandated six weeks to process complaints. Even if the court was able to meet the six-week timeline, workers need money while the case is ongoing to survive without wages. Qatar should amend the fund’s terms and provide humanitarian assistance to workers while they await a labor court resolution, Human Rights Watch said. Additionally, the labor court needs to create avenues for workers without Qatar IDs to report wage abuse and other grievances.

*SOURCE: Human Rights Watch. Go to ORIGINAL.

2020 Human Wrongs Watch