Thursday, June 3, 2010

I am telling it how it is…

As you may have guessed from previous posts, I am officially leaving Qatar on July 22nd. After a year of working in Doha I have made the decision that this is not the right place for me at this time. My ticket is bringing me back to Columbus, Ohio; however, I do not have a job. I am hoping to find a job in or near Columbus, but I am also open to working abroad.

Over the past few months I have held back on blogging about some of my experiences here for a few reasons. A major reason is that you can loose your job and ability to live in Qatar for saying the wrong thing… even if the “wrong” thing is a personal opinion or a proven fact. Recently there was an article in Time Magazine. The day after it was published one of the men quoted in the article was called into his employers office (I am employed by the same overarching foundation) and fired and told his Resident Permit would be canceled because they did not like what he said. The really sad thing is that he has lived in Qatar the majority of his life and will now have to create a home somewhere else. I also have not wanted to be overly negative about my experience when only aspects of my experience have been negative. Now that my decision is final – I am not holding back (ok, I am holding back a little). I am going to tell you what I really think.

Today I will start by telling you about my thoughts on labor laws that I feel are unjust. As an educated American I am unbelievably privileged in Qatar. It is relatively easy for me to leave the country. I do have to get permission from my employer to get an exit permit, but they say yes. Other nationalities, and less educated laborers are not as lucky. An individual in my office has been denied exit permits by my employer for fear that this individual might not return. Similarly, even though this employee has worked for QF for years and is in the same pay grade that I am, I am provided extra benefits because I was hired internationally. While this employee struggles to support their family, I have been benefiting from “extra” perks that I do not even need (i.e. free tuition for children at private schools). Even I have restrictions. I initially thought I would like to continue working in Qatar, but not for my company… No. When you leave a job you have to leave the country for two years before you are allowed to return. To return before that date you need permission from your employer… my employer did not say no, they officially did not say anything (meaning, they are saying No, but it is too much of a burden on the head of my department to take the time to give me an official answer – don’t worry a former professor gave me a No, and had no qualms about supporting unjust labor policies that limit professional growth).

Worse than restrictions on freedom of movement is the way laborers are paid and treated. Most labors in Qatar work outside, in the unbelievable heat, all day. Many are building the beautiful buildings that create Education City's campus (pictured above). They are rarely given breaks and eat their lunch on the ground. On my campus in the summer, labors are given a two hour break during the heat of the day (not a reduction in hours… they still work a full day, they just get a break in the middle), the problem is that during this break they are not allowed to go anywhere. You see laborers resting under date trees trying to utilize whatever shade there is in the grueling sun and 120 degree heat. These same labors are paid next to nothing. I cannot give you exact figures for these laborers; however, similarly paid jobs (albeit indoor jobs) would be paid in the range of 900 to 1500 riyals a month. On the high end these individuals are making $400 a month. Most of these jobs do come with housing, which saves money. “Housing” can mean a lot of things. The security guards that work in my compound and on my campus live in large rooms with 16 individuals. The room is the size of my living room with bunk beds around the walls. The center is empty and this is where they all eat together – the kitchen is shared by 4-6 of these rooms. As jobs move away from manual labor and begin to have interaction with Qataris and families, you do see some higher pay and somewhat better treatment.

This better treatment extends to being able to eat at a table and having access to air-conditioning during the very hot days. Service workers in Qatari homes often face abuse for not meeting their employers “expectations” or for attempting to flee. A friend of a man I work with is a driver for a Qatari family. He has a friend who had a intimate relationship with a neighboring family’s maid. This driver was beaten and seriously injured just for knowing about the relationship. His embassy had no ability to intervene on his behalf, and since he would have no ability to work in Qatar otherwise, he stayed working for the man who beat him. Physical abuse is a significant issue in many Gulf and Arab countries. Egypt and Jordan have passed laws to protect nannies and housemaids because of the rise in deaths and suicides connected to abuse. This mistreatment and unfair wages is not limited to those working for Qataris. Recently an American woman was looking for a nanny to work on Friday’s only (Friday is like a Sunday in the US; many have religions and family commitments on this day – but typically not work commitments). This woman had a fulltime nanny for the other 6 days of the week, but was just looking for “light” help with cleaning and child care for her child on Fridays. She was offering to pay 100 riyals. By Qatari standards this might be a fair wage for working on a Friday, but this was an American woman offering to pay $27 for a full day’s work.

Some of you might be thinking, “well the cost of living is lower, so the pay it ok.” That might be a fair argument if pay for all positions was adjusted accordingly; however, there is a significant pay jump from laborer positions to educated professional positions. This is true in the US, but not to the same extent. I am a “lower” paid professional in Qatar (I work in education… not oil or gas), and I make a base salary of around 13,500 a month; 10 time the amount of an average laborer and 5 times the amount of a highly paid laborer. In the US a skilled construction worker could make a similar salary to an entry-level educator – here not even 1/8 of the salary. Consider the additional restrictions placed on male labors. Male laborers are often only given Fridays off. This is the day they can do grocery shopping, relax and have fun. This is also the day that malls decide to be “family only”, meaning men cannot enter by themselves; they must be accompanied by their family or at a minimum a female. This is rarely enforced for western males, but almost always enforced for Asian Sub-continence males. Even parks are sometimes limited to families only, with the threat of getting arrested if a man enters by himself. So where do you find all of these man on their one day off? You find them at the souqs and one of the malls. Friday is “Man Day” at the souqs. Most of these men are on three-year contracts with “annual leaves” each year to see family. Sometimes they are allowed to go home to see their family, and sometimes they are not. So for potentially three years these men work for 6 days a week, with restrictions on where they can go on their day off, and the inability to leave the country. Yeah, the pay does not seem fair to me.

Labor laws in Qatar need to change!

(Hint… the next time I tell you what I really think the topic will be the World Cup!)

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