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Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail stadium which will be build for the upcoming 2022 Fifa soccer World Cup during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, December 20, 2019.  © 2019 REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

(New York) – Qatari authorities failed to address an employer’s months of delayed wages to employees despite a 2015 system built to ensure employers paid their employees on time and in full, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government’s Wage Protection System (WPS), designed to ensure that workers receive their salaries through direct bank transfer by the seventh day of every month, allows the government to monitor wage payments and allows the labor minister to impose sanctions on companies and employers that do not comply. But a Qatari employer did not pay its managerial staff for five months and its laborers for two months before workers publicly protested the situation.

“Qatar has passed some laws to protect migrant workers, but the authorities seem more interested in promoting these minor reforms in the media than in making them work,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “FIFA and the Qatari government should ensure that any employer that has delayed payments immediately releases them, as well as levy appropriate fines.”

Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup organizer, the quasi-governmental Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, has also adopted measures to protect workers on World Cup sites, setting stringent rules for contractors. The rules require setting up worker welfare committees to report abuses on these sites.

Many of the managerial-level staff with this employer received the five months of payments they were owed on February 13, 2020, and those who have not are expecting them on February 16. All the laborers Human Rights Watch spoke to received the two months of payments they were owed on February 7. Staffers and laborers said they were told by senior management that the government stepped in to make the payments.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 11 workers under this employer – 7 from management, 3 laborers, and a former management staff member – and reviewed relevant documentation, including five official memos asking management staff to keep working to maintain the “reputation of the [employer].” All 7 management staff members said that the employer failed to pay at least 500 managerial staff such as engineers, surveyors, and supervisors beginning in September 2019.

While Human Rights watch documented the problems under one employer, the findings expose a systemic failure that has a bearing on all employers operating in Qatar, Human Rights Watch said.

The management staff said they reported to work without pay under threat of deductions until several staff members decided to stop working until they were paid. The employer and their top-level management also made similar threats to keep laborers working throughout December and January. During this time, the laborers remained in their employer-provided accommodations and were provided regular meals. Management staff arrange for their own room and board.

The employer engages over 6,000 workers and has over 25 current projects in Qatar. These include a stadium in Doha, which will host FIFA World Cup 2022 matches, the streets surrounding the stadium, and a road-building project to connect Doha’s downtown areas to several FIFA World Cup stadiums.

“I was so miserable, my wife is having a baby soon,” said one 32-year-old surveyor who received four months of salary on February 13. “I was supposed to go to India for the delivery. Instead, I had no money to live in Qatar, I am in thousands of riyals of debt, and there is a potential travel ban on me [because of defaulting on a bank loan]. How did this happen to me?” He said he understood he had only been paid because the government had provided the money. “I will now go and clear months of dues with the bank, my landlord, and grocer who has been giving us vegetables on credit.”

Since migrant workers are still banned under Qatari law from joining unions and participating in strikes, some of the unpaid workers risked arrest to protest for their salaries. “We were scared to stop working and protest, but our families back home were starving so we blocked the main road near our accommodation,” said an Indian laborer working on a road-building project for minimum wage (US$206 a month). The three laborers interviewed said they received their past-due wages on February 7, the same day as they protested, and are back at work.

Managerial staff protested outside one of their employer’s many project offices in Doha on February 9, they told Human Rights Watch. They said that government and police officials intervened, verbally promised prompt payment, and sent the protesters home.

Their September salary was sent to their bank accounts that day. Salaries for October, November, December, and January began pouring into hundreds of salary accounts on February 13, the staff members said. Three of the seven staff members interviewed received full payments, and the others said they expect to receive theirs on February 16.

Under the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Forced Labour (No. 29), work is considered forced or compulsory labor when workers are made to work under threat of penalty or withholding and non-payment of wages.

Staff members said that before they held protests on main roads, they had filed complaints about their missing wages with the local police on January 30 and at the National Human Rights Commission on February 4. They said they did not receive any written responses for these complaints.

This is not the first time this employer has delayed the payment of salaries to its employees. Managerial staff said they have not been receiving their wages on time since January 2018, often with two to three month delays, a direct violation of Qatar’s labor law, which requires that employees be paid their wages in full and on time.

Despite introducing some labor reforms over the past couple of years, Qatari authorities have failed to abolish the exploitative kafala sponsorship labor system that fuels abuses and gives employers excessive power over their employees. In most cases, employer’s consent is still needed for a worker to change jobs.

In January 2020, this employer told its managerial staff that if they did not want to work without pay, they could issue them No Objection Certificates that would allow them to transfer to new jobs. However, the staff members interviewed said that they did not want to resign until they were fully paid for past work because employees who left a year ago are still waiting for outstanding salaries and gratuity payments. Qatar’s labor law states that migrant workers receive a yearly gratuity payment which must amount to at least three weeks of salary.

A former employee from Pakistan told Human Rights Watch that he resigned a year ago, and he is still owed QR20,000 (about $5,493) in payments. The delay violates a Qatari law stipulating that if a worker is terminated, the employer must pay their wages and any other outstanding sums within seven days from the last day of employment.

A recent joint report by the International Labour Organization and the Qatari Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour & Social Affairs found a series of problems with the Wage Protection System that hamper its efficacy, including being overburdened with cases. It noted that in November 2018, the system’s staff were dealing with cases from January 2018. It was also said that the threat of penalties for violations was not immediate. Penalties include a maximum prison sentence of one month, a fine between 2,000 to 6,000 Qatari riyals (about $550 to $1,648), or both.

Even if the system were more efficiently managed, it has limited authority to force companies and employers to comply with the law. While the system can flag non-payments, it is up to the Department of Wage Protection to enforce the law for full and timely payments, Human Rights Watch said.

“This case of hundreds of delayed wages once again highlights that the Wage Protection System and the Department of Wage Protection are not doing enough to ensure that migrant workers in Qatar receive their salaries in time and in full,” Page said. 

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