DOHA, Qatar — In recent years, the gulf state of Qatar has managed to grab the attention of developed nations around the world by rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the region. However, Qatar’s means of creating this wealth, by many standards, has been highly unique.
In 1971 when the country gained its independence from Great Britain, it had a GDP of $387.7 million; as of 2016, that number increased to $156.6 billion. The country also had the second highest income per capita in the world in 2016 and an unemployment rate of .7 percent; however, when put into context, these numbers only appear to mask the severity of the Qatar poverty rate.
By and large, two factors that have worked in coordination with one another to foster this economic growth have been a considerable influx of migrant workers in addition to the exploitation of enormous oil and natural gas reserves, which accounts for more than half of all government revenue.
In 1971, the population of Qatar was about 119,000 people, today, the population is approximately 2.5 million. The cause for this increase in population can be attributed for the most part to migrant workers, who now comprise around 90 percent of the country’s population and workforce.
Though it may be news to some, the Qatar poverty rate is only becoming increasingly worse each day, and migrant workers are the among the sole individuals suffering from it.
In 2015, there was an estimated 1.7 million migrants working in Qatar, and in January 2017, this number increased to as many as 2.2 million. Most migrant workers in Qatar come from countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal or Pakistan in efforts to escape poverty in their home countries and achieve financial stability for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, as many have quickly discovered, Qatar is not at all what they anticipated.
The Sponsorship System
Upon arrival into the country, Qatari law dictates that migrant workers, under the kafala sponsorship system, cannot leave the country or change jobs without their employer’s permission. Another major problem is that employers in Qatar are also notorious for confiscating the passports of migrant workers, keeping them in the country indefinitely and leading to many allegations of forced labor. On top of this, a newly enacted law in December 2016 allows them to do this legally with written consent.
Another obstacle for nearly every migrant in Qatar is the initial recruitment costs workers typically pay to recruiters before going to the country. Under the logic that it is a short-term investment that would bring-long term benefits, and again, despite its illegality under Qatari law, almost every migrant worker in Qatar paid a job recruiter anywhere between $500-$3400 before leaving their home countries to obtain a job. A vast majority of those had to take out loans with varying interests rates in order to pay for these recruitment costs.
Migrant Living Conditions
The reason per capita income published by Qatar does not always paint a realistic picture is due to the fact that the data is typically based only on the incomes of native Qatari citizens, a demographic of Qatari society whose population is estimated to be about 250,000.
While the salaries of migrant workers in Qatar vary on a case-by-case basis, the lowest paid migrant worker will, on average, earn about $1,920 per year working in construction — an industry that comprises tens of thousands of jobs for Qatar’s migrant workers. The higher earning workers generally never receive a salary exceeding $500 per month.
In contrast, salary estimates for Qatari citizens average $690,000 of the GDP per citizen, a fact that reinforces the notion that the majority of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of native Qatari citizens. Another thing to take into consideration is that although they may be receiving a salary, for a large number of these workers the majority of their wages will go to paying off the recruitment fee loan and subsequently accrued interest.
Migrant workers are rarely given an opportunity to spend much money on themselves or to send money home to their families for a minimum number of months after arriving in the country. Also, since they have no freedom of movement or ability to change places of work freely, they only increase the Qatar poverty rate by being forced to continue to work in lower paid jobs, while simultaneously being consistently limited in how they can spend the money they do earn.
Much like other countries, a wealth gap has inevitably led to a potentially irreversible Qatar poverty rate, so long as this disproportionate distribution of wealth continues to occur. Similarly to any other society in poverty, there are also the ripple effects produced by said poverty.
In Qatar, migrant workers have alleged complaints that include substandard living conditions, ill-treatment in labour camps, lies about the details of the work they would be doing and how long until they actually arrive in Qatar, health problems with no money to afford health care, constant fears of being homeless, poor safety conditions in the workplace and more.
Fortunately, earlier this year, the United Nations International Labour Organization gave Qatar until November 2017 to end human rights abuses toward their migrant workers or face investigation for forced labour violations — an incredibly powerful step in reducing the Qatar poverty rate.
Perhaps the country of Qatar can serve as an ideal reminder of the seemingly obvious fact that the wealth gap in any economy will always leave a minimum of one demographic at a serious disadvantage.
– Hunter Mcferrin