Migrant workers in Qatar resort to begging for food as COVID-19 infections mount


Migrant workers in Qatar are reduced to begging for food as the country struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gulf state is fast becoming one of the countries with highest rates of coronavirus infections, where a surge in the outbreak has seen one-in-four people tests positive of the virus.

Despite Qatar’s vast wealth, desperate low-wage workers have been abandoned by employers and are unable to leave the country, according to an investigation by The Guardian.

Many told the media outlet they have suddenly been left jobless, with no other way to earn a living. Others say they are desperate but unable to return home. Some have been forced to beg for food from their employers or charities.

“I don’t have much food left. Just some rice and lentils,” Rafiq, a cleaner from Bangladesh, said. “It will last only a few days. What happens when this food finishes?”

Rafiq, who lost his job in March, was one of more than 20 migrant workers interviewed by The Guardian about their plight.

Qatar, home to over 2 million migrant workers, now has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the world with almost 18,000 cases in a population of just 2.8 million. Over 25% of those tested for the virus in the past week have been found to be infected; the vast majority migrant workers.

The government says almost all the cases are mild, and death rates have remained very low, with just 12 fatalities.

The cost to livelihoods has been compounded by a government directive in mid-April allowing companies that have stopped operating due to coronavirus restrictions to put workers on unpaid leave or terminate their contracts.

The government said food and accommodation, which is usually arranged by employers, must continue to be provided, but workers’ testimonies suggest in some cases this is not happening.

A Filipino beautician who arrived in Qatar two months ago said she received just half a month’s pay and has now been laid off. “My boss says he has no money. How about my family in the Philippines? They need my money … How will I get food? There is no one to give us. Even my boss is not giving [food],” she said.

Some of the worst hit are undocumented workers and those on so-called “free visas”, who often rely on short-term or casual work, without a regular employer to provide food and housing.

Saidul, a decorator from Bangladesh working on a free visa, said he has been without a job since mid-March. “I have spent all my savings. I am borrowing money from friends and relatives for food and rent. It’s very difficult to carry on without work … I’m not afraid of corona. The problem is there isn’t any work,” he said.

A group of “live out” domestic workers from Nepal, who work in private homes during the day but return to their own rooms at night, told the Guardian they have been left destitute after they refused to move in with the families they serve, fearing both the virus and the risk of abuse, which is common among domestic workers in the Gulf.

In response, the women said the company which directly employs them forced them to sign a paper stating it is no longer liable for their salaries. Since early March, they have each received just 100 rials (£22).

“We don’t have any money left now. We begged our supervisor for food and eventually he gave us some, but what will happen when it’s finished?” said one.

The plight of low-wage workers in Qatar is repeated across the Gulf, where economies are almost entirely dependent on millions of migrant workers from south and southeast Asia and east Africa.

Kuwait has reportedly seen a surge in the number of suicides among migrants. Workers in the UAE have described being “trapped” without work or a way to return home, while Saudi Arabia has deported thousands of Ethiopian domestic workers. (Source: The Guardian)