Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Wage theft in Qatar didn’t stop with the World Cup

Qatar instituted many labour reforms during the leadup to World Cup. But have they made a difference?

Francis Nanseera
3 May 2023, 6.00am

Delivering food in Doha, Qatar in October 2022


Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images. All rights reserved

Francis Nanseera is a 36-year-old former migrant worker who has returned to his country of origin in Eastern Africa after spending nine months in Qatar. This is the story of his experience, told in his own words.

The people who say the World Cup made things better for workers in Qatar are probably tourists. Their experiences are coloured by visits to new places, shaped by interesting scenery, and marked by good memories. I know, because I’m one of the people who toiled to make those experiences possible.

Qatar made the World Cup a success. It was a splendid show. The fans enjoyed themselves in their designated places, while the workers, hidden away in filthy labour camps, stayed comfortably out of sight. Fans from every corner of the world were welcomed, while migrant workers were treated as something to be ashamed of.

The charade is over now. The spectacle is long done. But plenty of migrant workers remain in Qatar. And they are still suffering.

When dreams fall apart

I first arrived in Qatar in April 2022, seven months before the World Cup began. I had lost my job during the pandemic, and chose to make the journey so that I could provide for myself and my family. Arriving in Qatar filled me with hope.

My first impressions were positive. I was pleased by how advanced the infrastructure was, and felt a sense of promise that this would be my workplace for the next few months. Even seeing the police every five kilometres made me happy. It was different from what I felt back home in Eastern Africa. There the police presence bothered me, but in Qatar it gave me a sense of safety and security. I thought it meant that I could easily report an incident at a moment’s notice.

I will never understand why this level of violence gets meted out on people who are not threats.

How wrong I was. During my nine months there I filed numerous complaints, but never received a single reply. The police did not honor the experiences of people who did not speak Arabic. Instead they arrested us, maybe deported us, if we dared to file a report against our employer. It happened to me. I was arrested, cuffed, taken away to a filthy facility, and physically assaulted by the police. My colleagues suffered similar experiences.

I will never understand why this level of violence gets meted out on people who are not threats in any way. On normal people, on labourers, who are simply there to perform menial, relatively uninteresting work for the benefit of the people in Qatar.

Hell on a scooter

I was employed by Infinity Delivery Services, a subcontractor for the food delivery company Talabat. Owned by German company Delivery Hero, Talabat is like Deliveroo or Uber Eats for the Gulf states.

My job started in the summer, when the daytime temperature in Doha is usually somewhere in the 40s (100°+ F). It is a blinding heat, and enduring it during my 12-hour shifts left me dangerously dehydrated. The orders usually came from high-end restaurants. It filled me with humiliation to arrive, dripping with sweat, in a weather-beaten uniform carrying a bag covered in dust from the sandstorms outside.

Infinity treated us so negligently that if someone fell sick, they’d have to beg medication off others who had previously been in hospital. I’ve often wondered what the Germans would think if they knew how it was for us. I like to think that they would feel for us. At any rate, I can’t imagine that if we were working over there, with the original company, they would ever treat us the way Infinity did.

I never saw a penny for the months I spent working in the service of Talabat. My contract said I would be paid 1800 Qatari rials a month, or about $500. After arriving in Qatar an account was opened for me that, I soon found out, I could neither control nor access. I received notifications that money was being transferred into that account, but without a way to get to it the money never became mine. This did not just happen to me. It was the same for a team of over 160 riders.

We mainly survived on freebies and tips, and supported each other through it all by pooling funds and shopping collectively. We had one meal a day or, at times, no meal at all. It was only when the human rights organisation FairSquare intervened and asked Talabat to take charge that the situation improved. But I was deported shortly after that.

I couldn’t tell them I was going through the worst experience of my life.

After a few months without a single penny to make it worth my while, my mental health deteriorated. It became so bad, I became afraid of what could happen to me on the road. Delivering food while hungry myself didn’t help. Some customers tipped in appreciation. Others out of pity. They could easily see what was going on – it was reflected in my eyes, my voice, and my body language. I was failing. I couldn’t afford to eat, let alone take care of my little girl or her recently widowed grandmother back home. At one point I went so silent they thought I had abandoned them. I couldn’t tell them I was going through the worst experience of my life.

A support system designed to fail

When I sought help through the proper channels and filed a formal complaint with the Ministry of Labor, I learned there were thousands like me. Had our grievance succeeded, it would have changed our lives. But on the issue of back pay we’ve been given nothing. Not from the Qatari government. Not from Infinity Delivery Services. Not from Talabat or Delivery Hero.

If we were to receive the money we are owed by Infinity, it would be enough to set up small businesses in our home countries. We could live better lives and meet the goals that took us to Qatar in the first place. I could pay my daughter’s school fees and look after her granny, who cared for her while I was overseas.

Out there in Qatar, it is risky for us. My colleagues and I were not only fending for ourselves, but for our families back home. Your family expects you to take care of them when you migrate. We cannot afford mental health counsellors to cope with the trauma we experienced. The only thing that can help us to recover, if just a bit, is being paid what we are owed. We went out there and came back with nothing. Instead of being paid, I was treated as a criminal.

My time came an end when I was arrested and detained in January 2023. While in detention I was interrogated by an official who said he was from the Ministry of Labour. He promised to get in touch with my employer and demand they give me an ATM card. I never saw him again. I was deported that very night.

Instead of being paid, I was treated as a criminal.

My friend and colleague Hamza once told me that Qataris are not interested in us, our health, or our lives. He’s dead now, killed in a traffic accident while driving for Talabat. Even after months of unpaid salaries he continued to work, living off the tips he received. They were his only income.

I’ve come to realise this: Hamza was right.

Since the World Cup, Qatar has continued with a modern-day slave trade as the rest of the world looks on. They’ve announced a lot of changes, but that’s only to impress the world. Behind the façade of reform, workers are still chained to their employers with fake certificates and tied visas. Qatar is a safe place to visit – but not in which to work.

Nothing has changed. A worker can be labeled a ‘runaway’ if they try to escape their employer. They cannot change companies if mistreated, or leave a job as one would elsewhere in the world. Their complaints will not be heard.

I think about the workers who drove buses during the World Cup. These people – hundreds of them – were highly visible to fans and tourists during the World Cup. The world saw them. Yet in all likelihood they still haven’t been paid.

Editor’s note: We have published this personal testimonial so that the author could express his experiences in Qatar in his own words. We have not been able to verify the exact details of his version of events, beyond corroborating reports by the human rights organisation FairSquare.

openDemocracy contacted Talabat, its parent company, Delivery Hero, and Infinity Delivery Services, with a request for comment, but had not received a response at the time of publishing. In a communication with FairSquare, Talabat stated it is engaging strongly with the allegations put forward and had “terminated its agreement for cause with the Infinity entities based on such delayed payments.” Talabat and Delivery Hero also informed FairSquare that they can confirm the central allegations and have launched an investigation. They stated that the Ministry of Labour has also launched an official investigation in the organisation’s practices. Infinity Delivery Services informed FairSquare that they were “shocked and astonished” by allegations of wage theft, but did not provide evidence to refute the claims.

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