Qatar minister vows to improve migrants’ lives

By Adam Schreck, AP

DOHA, Qatar–Qatar’s inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was ��a mistake�� the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the country’s top labor official said Monday, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Abdullah Saleh Mubarak al-Khulaifi also expressed hope that a new payment system will address frequent complaints about late or nonexistent paychecks. But he was unable to say how soon proposed labor reforms floated last year to an employee sponsorship and exit visa system would come into play.

Tiny but energy-rich Qatar has faced intense scrutiny over its treatment of the low-paid guest workers building skyscrapers, stadiums, highways and other projects ahead of the games.

Conversations with guest workers crowded into bare-bones labor accommodations suggest many still are mistreated.

Several interviewed by the AP on a government-organized trip spoke of paying hefty recruitment fees that are illegal under Qatari law. Some said they were duped into taking jobs at salaries well below what they were promised.

Workers in some cases were housed in fetid, poorly ventilated rooms crammed with as many as 10 bunks, their clothes and cooking pans wedged underneath their beds.

Al-Khulaifi said the government recognizes that housing conditions for migrant laborers are a ��major problem.��

��Our delay nationally of accommodating properly such a population I think (was) a mistake that we are trying to remedy now,�� he said. ��Current substandard labor accommodations are unacceptable.��

Officials have nearly doubled the number of labor inspectors from 150 less than two years ago to 294 now, al-Khulaifi said, and they aim to hire about 100 more. He said it was ��an ongoing, continuous project to upgrade our inspectors�� with additional training while bolstering their ranks.

A new ��wage protection system�� aims to tighten oversight of salary payments by requiring money to be transferred directly to workers’ accounts. Al-Khulaifi said companies would need to comply with that by mid-August.

Workers also are busy building additional dormitories designed according to new guidelines, housing newcomers and those being relocated from poorer accommodations.

One new complex known as Labor City that was shown to visiting journalists is designed to house 70,000 workers. The government-backed project includes a cricket pitch, mall, cinema and what builders say is the second-largest mosque in Doha.

At another new labor camp, Barwa al-Baraha, workers sleep four to a room and eat at a cafeteria that on a visit this week was serving meals of Indian-style lentils, mutton and rice.

Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, welcomed improvements to workers’ housing but said deeper structural reforms were needed to give workers ��a basic standard of dignity.��