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December 18, 2020

Guest Post: What International Migrants Day means to migrant workers.

This is a guest blog post from “Noah,” a migrant worker from Kenya who has been working in Qatar since 2016 as a security guard. Noah is a member of the Global Migrant Workers Network, a worker-led network of migrant workers from Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia, most of whom are low income migrant workers in Gulf Countries. HU has been an early supporter in the creation of the network and has been providing networking and leadership development support to the Network.

Migration, for me, wasn’t optional. It was necessary. I’m guessing the same can be said for a good majority of the 200+ million migrants worldwide. People migrate for various reasons and have been migrating as far back as recorded history goes. The reasons why are just as timeless. The main ones anyway. The search for financial opportunity, fleeing conflict, natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Which brings me to my story, which began in late 2015. My neighbor, who had just landed some days prior, found me in a rather deplorable state. Jobless, homeless, fending off some combination of mental illnesses (unbeknownst to me at the time) which were kept at bay by devout substance abuse. Most importantly though, I was hopeless. Devoid of any prospects for my future, I raised no objection when he suggested I should consider going to Qatar for work. At this point I only knew what most people know about Qatar: Oil. Qatar Airways. Super-rich royal family members. Richest country in the world. Probably richer than UAE. Plus, it’s in the Gulf, and it’s a widely-held belief that everyone comes back home from there after a year or two, loaded with cash. This was a no-brainer.

The GCC is the preferred destination for a lot of people looking to secure financial stability. I’m not entirely sure why the appeal/ allure of Gulf countries is as prevalent, and as strong as it is. Maybe it’s the association with the ridiculous amount of wealth brought about by oil and natural gas. Perhaps it’s the flaunting of said wealth by ultra-rich citizens who lead lifestyles we can only dream of.

Maybe it’s the coercion through tantalizing tales and surreal stories that are shared by friends and relatives who live there, beckoning to hopeful migrants. Maybe it’s the apparent evidence of success, as seen in newly-built houses in the village back home, children put through school, and businesses started by Gulf money. Maybe it’s the relative ease of getting there in the first place, as compared to other coveted destinations like USA, Europe etc. It could also be the *idea* of being in some of the richest countries in the world. It makes sense that if a country is termed as being among the richest, then its standards for migrant workers should reflect that prestige. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as we shall soon see.

I hadn’t heard about migrant worker abuse then, but even that wouldn’t have deterred me. The biggest concern I had was the reliability of the recruitment agency. I had heard of instances, all too common, about ‘agents’ who made their living off hopeful jobseekers, by purporting to facilitate job placement, then charging exploitative recruitment fees, which do not come easy. Sacrifices are involved. Compromises. Loans taken out. Valuables put up as collateral. And lives often ruined.

I did not know that workers aren’t supposed to pay any recruitment charges, because the hiring company is supposed to be covering the cost of everything. I – and countless other desperate jobseekers – have a passionate loathing for recruitment agencies whose entire business is based on exploiting us.

Where I’m from, agents usually require obscene fees, an average of $1200. I spoke with one friend recently who told me in Southeast Asian countries, the charges are even higher. The crazy thing about it is they convince you the amount is a bargain compared to what you are going to earn. “It’s for processing your visa and air-ticket…”, “You should be grateful for the opportunity…”, “You will earn it back in no time…”

The truth of the matter is very different. People take months to regain that $1200 investment. It takes forever to repay the loans – plus interest. You have family upkeep, obligations, and other necessary expenditures. It’s kind of like a treadmill – step by step, one foot in front of the other, putting in hard work, yet stationary for the most part. And so, ‘progress’ is reliant upon the assumption that you receive your salary every month. Which is reliant upon the assumption that you get the full amount stated in your contract. Which is – you guessed it – reliant upon the assumption you get to work where your contract said you would. Contract substitution, arbitrary deductions, incomplete wages and unpaid salaries are still rampant within the Gulf countries.

Like many other migrant workers, I used a recruitment agency and paid about $1300 to join a security company in Qatar. Things went south from the moment we touched down. No arrangements were made for our transport. No one was even there to receive us. When we finally contacted one staff member working at the airport, we were just told to sit tight. After hours of waiting, our transport came in the form of hitching a ride with the outgoing shift, crammed together with our luggage into the bus, more like an automotive relic, a monstrosity. We were taken to a labor camp within the Industrial Area.

Our passports were confiscated, then we were transported to another camp, as ghastly as the first. No food was offered to us that night. Not even drinking water. The rooms were cramped. Sanitation was dismal. We went for a day or two without food. Some roommates were kind enough to share their food with us. Others not so much. The QR. 200 food allowance came after many days, owing to persistence on our part, and we were required to survive on that for around 40 days, till the month after next.

Since we weren’t officially their employees, we didn’t qualify for anything more than the food allowance. Guess how long that QR. 200 lasted?

To be honest, I try not to remember those first weeks. So much pain, confusion, and regret.

As time went by, I started really paying attention to things happening within this company. Arbitrary salary deductions, super-cramped living quarters, longer hours than expected, no off days, bullying and racism towards Africans, appalling food quality, wage theft, bedbug infestation and too many more offenses to list.

I wanted to speak out but didn’t know how, so I kept my head down, wanting to finish my contract without incident, just like most migrant workers. It’s all about keeping your head down, earning your wages (regularly, if you’re lucky) and going back home.

At some point, around late 2019, fueled by frustration, I mustered up whatever courage I had and composed an email to a certain client, elaborating our horrible living conditions. I got no response. I then emailed the parent company, Qatar Foundation. Nothing much came of it except generic responses. “We have escalated your concerns to the relevant department…”, “We are looking into the matter…”, “Blah blah blah…”

I even emailed the Ministry of Labour. This entity literally copy-pasted a non-helpful response. That whole experience was disheartening. If they didn’t come to our rescue, who would? You can’t go higher than the Ministry of Labour. Or so I thought.

Through some seemingly random series of events sparked by the lockdown, I was introduced to Vani Saraswathi, Associate Editor and Director of Projects at (MR), who encouraged me to write about my experiences as a migrant worker. That article was published and got a lot of traction. So much so that within three weeks, it led to a change in living arrangements for over a hundred people!

That was a *very* profound moment for me, having been part of the force that caused things to change. Something like this has never happened before in our company. It was then that I truly appreciated the influence and leverage of NGOs, human rights defenders, and the power of social media.

International Migrants Day raises awareness of the challenges that migrants face, which helps us to unite in finding solutions. The day also celebrates those who overcome overwhelming obstacles and showcases just how resilient, resourceful and remarkable migrants are.

There really is nothing I can say that hasn’t been said before. I would, however, like to echo this: please just be kinder to us. We are human beings first and foremost.

To the governments, the involved authorities, the employers, the citizens, and even to other migrants, please just be kinder. This is my message to the world on International Migrants Day.

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