Migrant worker, in blue jumpsuits, sit on a construction site.

Mohamed: “Migrant workers in Qatar should not be exploited and abused like I was”

As Sri Lanka grappled with economic turmoil, Mohamed, 38, saw a chance to provide a better life for his family with the promise of a new job in Qatar. As he left behind his family, home and country, he never expected that the months to come would be filled with worry, grief and stress – and a longing to go back home.

Here, he shares his story and lays bare the exploitation he faced as a migrant worker in Qatar, the year after the country hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup…

With the burgeoning petrol crisis and rising food costs in Sri Lanka, it was becoming difficult to support my family, even though I had a secure job. When I heard of a job opportunity in Qatar, I was hopeful I could do more for my family by working abroad and earning a better wage.

I was told by the local recruitment agency in Sri Lanka, that I needed to pay 4 lakhs in Sri Lankan rupees (US$1,220) to register my job application. I sold my three-wheeler tuk-tuk to get the money, even though it was my only means of transport and making a living. I felt it was a sacrifice that needed to be made if I wanted to provide for me and my family.

As Sri Lanka grappled with economic turmoil, Mohamed, 38, saw a chance to provide a better life for his family with the promise of a new job in Qatar.

In early 2023, I left Sri Lanka, hopeful for a better future. But when I arrived in Qatar and saw my accommodation, any hope I had was shattered. Instead, a feeling of unease settled over me. I knew something wasn’t right. I’ve worked abroad before, but this was different.

The accommodation was dirty and 10 of us were sharing a room. We were made to work 10-hour shifts at construction sites building houses. We weren’t given any kind of protection, not even a helmet. It was hard and intense hands-on labour, in excessive heat.

Soon one month passed, and while I was expecting my paycheck, the company told us they would keep our first month’s salary. Instead, we would receive our wages from the second month on, they said. We were exhausted by the work and given just a small allowance each week for food and other basics.

I couldn’t send money home. With no other source of income my mother and wife had to take loans from neighbours and pawn jewellery so they had enough money to survive.

Mohamed

This wasn’t what I had been promised in Sri Lanka. I was frustrated, but I had to keep working. I needed this job to support my family back home and I thought at least when my salary came it would provide relief to my family, so I didn’t complain and instead bore the stress that came with it.

Then the second month came and passed too. When we asked for our salaries again, we were told we would receive our money next month. I couldn’t send money home, and with no other source of income my mother and wife had to take loans from neighbours and pawn jewellery so they had enough money to survive. They felt helpless with nowhere to turn to. They were barely able to get by.

After three months with no pay, I was desperate and frustrated. Together with a few of my co-workers, we lodged a labour complaint against the company for withholding our salary. Some of my colleagues had not been paid for months.

Usually, when a case is lodged, the company will be notified. During this time, we had stopped work in the hope of a positive outcome of our case. In return, the company stopped giving us our basic food allowance and kicked us out of the accommodation, while refusing to pay our salaries.

A man lies on a bunkbed in a cramped room, surrounded by clothes.
Accommodation for migrant workers in Qatar is often cramped, with 10 people forced to share a room.

Weeks passed and we would either have one meal a day or no meal at all. I was desperate and looked for any help I could get. I came across Amnesty International’s campaign on FIFA and Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, I reached out and Amnesty International recommended us to Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee who helped us with shelter, while a local activist helped us with food.

At one point, my colleagues and I walked all the way to the labour courts as we had no money. There were no pavements, so we walked on the highway under the blazing sun, only to be told they had not received our case.

We remained hopeful that we would still hear from the courts, with a fair decision for the time and money we had lost. We were called back to the labour court and informed by an officer there that he would make sure we got our outstanding salaries and our Qatar ID, so we could change companies and keep working to support our family. I had already spent so much and had got into debt to come to Qatar, I couldn’t afford to go home so soon. We kept asking and asking, but he never made good on his promise to us.

In the end, eight months after I arrived in Doha the company gave me just two months of salary. They wouldn’t give us our ID, so there was no other option but to accept a flight ticket back to Sri Lanka.

The Qatari government doesn’t enforce the laws to protect people like us properly. Companies know that most migrant workers would rather go home and lose everything than remain without accommodation and food. If it wasn’t for the support of human rights organizations, such as Amnesty, we wouldn’t have survived as long as we did.

I feel the labour court has ties to these companies, so there is no justice in our situation.

There is no justice in our situation.

Mohamed

Now I’m home, I’ve had to work as a daily labourer, doing odd jobs in my town until I find more stable work. If it’s a decent day’s work, I earn about LKR 1,500 (US$ 4.60) a day. I came back home to an even worse situation than before I left for Qatar. I feel I would have been better off if I had never left. I lost more than I gained by taking this job in Qatar.

I want to be able to tell my story, so others don’t suffer a similar fate. Sadly, I am not the only one who has suffered. Migrant workers in Qatar should not be exploited and abused like I was.

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