DOHA, Qatar — The World Health Organization (WHO) has rated Qatar as 44th in the world for overall efficiency in providing healthcare to its citizens. With an expansive network of doctors and hospitals, immediate ambulance services and health management programs, medical assistance is of a high standard. However, migrant workers in Qatar, who make up about 60% of the population and 95% of the workforce, face a different reality. Coming from some of the world’s poorest countries, the majority of these workers are single male workers depending on economic opportunities in Qatar to earn income for their families back home. Living in the labor camps of the Industrial Area of Qatar, they constantly experience unsanitary, overcrowded and dangerous working conditions. These circumstances often make it inevitable for workers to seek healthcare in Qatar on a daily basis.
The Reality of Healthcare for Single Male Workers
According to a policy brief by Georgetown University, single male workers in the labor camps face four major obstacles when trying to gain access to healthcare in Qatar. One of the obstacles they face has to do with low income. Under Qatar’s Kafala system, migrant workers become dependent on their employers because the system ensures that employers receive high authority in the workplace. As a result, employers often pay their workers less than the minimum wage. Due to this poor treatment, workers are unable to receive health insurance.
In February 2020, Amnesty International confided in the Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy about this abuse and the Supreme Committee ensured that workers would receive proper pay. However, workers again reported to Amnesty International that employers were continuing to provide late payments and less money than they were supposed to receive.
In addition to low income, another obstacle single male workers’ face is transportation. Low-income workers are often unable to pay for the transportation necessary to reach distant medical facilities, which results in workers not having timely access to healthcare, such as in the case of workplace injuries. There are no on-site clinics at the labor camps.
Furthermore, in order to access the state’s expansive healthcare system, residents must have a government-issued health card. Reports determined that about 56% of low-income migrants could not afford the health card. While Qatari officials have put a labor law in place that guarantees that employers are responsible for issuing these health cards to their workers, some employers are reluctant to pay the price. The final obstacle that single male workers face is cultural and language differences. Workers are unable to communicate with Qatari healthcare workers effectively due to language differences, thus leading to a lack of representation among migrant workers. No systems have emerged to increase accessibility to healthcare for migrant workers.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Workers
According to the Social Science Research Council, COVID-19 has spread rapidly into the labor camps of Qatar, infecting hundreds of migrant workers. With new cases rising every day, access to healthcare in Qatar has become quite a challenge as the government has issued a cordon sanitaire, or lockdown, around the labor camps. Residents are unable to leave camp in order to access healthcare facilities. In order to combat this problem, a coalition of non-governmental organizations sent a joint letter to the Qatar government with five requests on March 31, 2020. Some of these organizations include Amnesty International, Global Labor Justice, Humanity United, Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation. Here are the five requests to the Qatar government:
- Ensure that all workers, including undocumented workers, quarantine themselves and receive the appropriate medical care if they become ill with COVID-19.
- Guarantee that no workers experience detainment for violating quarantine and make sure that those who do become detained obtain proper medical treatment and opportunities for self-isolation.
- Make sure that migrant workers who are unable to work due to a COVID-19 infection or quarantine continue to receive full wages.
- Ensure that the public receives information so that migrant workers and domestic workers do not experience discrimination or negative stigma due to having COVID-19.
- Guarantee that domestic workers receive proper medical care and continue to receive full pay if they are unable to work due to sickness.
In addition to these requests, Steve Cockburn, the Deputy Director of Amnesty International, stated in the Global Construction Review that labor accommodations in Qatar are “notoriously overcrowded, and lack in adequate water and sanitation means that workers are inevitably less able to protect themselves from the virus.” Thus, healthcare access for migrant workers has started to become a top priority for government officials in Qatar with the rise of COVID-19.
Qatari Officials’ Efforts
According to the Global Construction Review, Qatari officials have taken several steps to ensure that migrant workers receive proper treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the steps they have taken is transforming the Hazm Mebaireek General Hospital, which lies in the Industrial Area of Qatar, into a COVID-19 health facility. This facility consists of 147 beds, with 42 of those beds being reserved for intensive care. In addition, officials are also contacting companies to ensure that migrant workers in quarantine receive full wages, food, water, masks and hand sanitizers. Since one of the obstacles workers had to face while trying to get access to healthcare were late payments from employers, officials are making sure that companies are correctly coordinating with their workers to address this issue. Finally, health checks are regularly occurring in the labor camps for migrant workers who become ill with COVID-19 or are in lockdown.
– Sudiksha Kochi