Thai / English

Qatar migrant workers get global union support

25 Nov 14

The plight of the migrants workers in Qatar has made the global union Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) take action. During its board meeting in Geneva last week the organisation made a policy decision to work out a proposal for how people working in countries where unions are banned could be offered membership in the BWI.

Through direct affiliation to the world organisation the BWI is trying to get around the Qatari law that forbids 94 per cent of the country’s labour force to join a union. The government has ruled that only Qatari citizens can be members of a union.

Svenska Dagbladet was present a couple of weeks ago as representatives of the BWI visited the wealthy Gulf state and the issue of organised labour was being discussed in public for the first time.

Johan Lindholm, chairman of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union was the first speaker when migrant workers met in secret in a restaurant in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

“There are 1,5 million of you. They need you. You are building their nation and you will be the ones building the Football World Cup in 2022. You should have rights!”

The union leaders went to the meeting place in small groups so as not to attract any attention. The room at the back of the restaurant filled quickly with migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and other countries. They have come here on the only free day in the week to hear what the people from BWI have to say.

A lawyer was also present informing about the rights in a country with a system called “kafala” which human rights groups and unions have described as serfdom and a form of modern slavery. The system is based on the employer being a host and sponsor for the migrant workers. The carpenters and the painters we talk to during the clandestine meeting in Doha say that they have rendered their passports when they arrived in Qatar. They are not allowed to change jobs and they cannot go home without the permission of the employer.

One of the men in the restaurant takes out a bundle of receipts from his pocket explaining that the employer forces his employees to buy all their food in the company canteen. The prices are high and a big part of the salary is spent there. It would have been only half as expensive had they been allowed to do their own cooking and more money would have been sent back to their families in their home countries.

Another man says that he has not received any salary for the past six months and that the company has not renewed his ID-card which means that he can be deported any day. He is impoverished and in debt and does not know what to do.

None of those we speak to have yet complained with their employers or contacted the authorities. But the man with the receipts says that he has had enough. He wants to take action even though it might cost him dearly.

“I may get in trouble, but there are 16,000 workers in the company I work for who can have it better. I’ll do it. I’m not afraid,” he says.

Ambet Yuson, Secretary General of BWI tells the man that it is difficult to bring about change when one is alone. Many people must join together and demand their rights. That is how unions operate, he explains.

Yuson is offering help, a lawyer who can take the matter to court but in return he asks for a list with signatures from more builders. He promises anonymity and assures that no outsider will be given access to the list.

In February this year, after pressure from the international community, the organisational committee of the World Cup put forward an action programme. In it standards are set for wages and living conditions and tougher inspections of the workplaces are envisaged. Contractors who do not follow the rules will be punished and lose their contract, according to the programme.

However, the builders that Svenska Dagbladet was talking to have not seen any improvements. To most migrant workers it is impossible to start a process on one’s own against an employer since it requires a lawyer and a large sum of money.

When Svenska Dagbladet was present the representatives for BWI were discussing direct affiliation to the the global organisation. Among other things there is an ambition to create local networks to which migrant workers can turn for help and support. There is a wish to open an office and to offer legal help. Last Friday therefore a working group was set up to look at the framework for a future union membership. Sweden’s Johan Lindholm is a member of the group.

The group will present their findings a the meeting of the World Board of the BWI in Sweden in May next year. A formal decesion will then be reached.

“We want to send the international football association FIFA a signal telling them that we will never stop working on this issue. We have put the shovel in the sands of Qatar and we will see to that things start happening, says Johan Lindholm