Qatar has set aside more than $800m to pay the wages of migrant workers who are in quarantine or undergoing treatment for Covid-19, it has been revealed.
The announcement followed criticism from human rights groups after the country’s largest labour camp was put into lockdown to protect the rest of the population.
Hundreds of workers in the "Industrial Area" of Doha became infected with Covid-19, with some voicing fears they wouldn’t be able to continue sending money home if they were unable to work.
This week Qatar turned a hospital in the Industrial Area into a dedicated Covid-19 facility (more below).
"Labour accommodation camps are notoriously overcrowded, and lack in adequate water and sanitation meaning that workers are inevitably less able to protect themselves from the virus," warned Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Global Issues, on 20 March.
Qatar has announced 781 confirmed coronavirus cases – the highest in the Arab Gulf region – and two deaths.
The tiny Gulf state relies on about two million migrant workers for its labour force, mainly from Asian countries, but says that, so far, infections have not reached workers on its World Cup sites.
The Industrial Area lockdown led to an NGO coalition, including trade unions and human rights groups, this week writing to the Doha government with a list of five demands. They ask that:
- Migrant workers are tested for Covid-19 and provided with medical treatment, and the means to protect themselves from infection;
- No one is detained for violating quarantine;
- Migrant workers unable to work due to quarantine or illness will continue to receive their full wages;
- The public is provided with information to ensure migrant workers do not face discrimination or stigma due to the virus;
- Domestic workers are provided with access to protective measures, healthcare and guaranteed sick pay.
Among the signatories to the letter were Amnesty International, Building and Woodworkers International, International Transport Workers Federation and International Trade Union Confederation.
Qatar has announced that it is putting aside three billion riyals ($824m) to support companies paying their employees.
On Monday, 30 March Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health said it had turned Hazm Mebaireek General Hospital, opened in the Industrial Area in 2018, into a dedicated Covid-19 facility, with 147 beds, 42 of them intensive care beds.
It said capacity can be increased to 471 beds, with 221 of those intensive care beds.
The Government Communication Office said the authorities were working with employers to ensure payment of salaries and distribution of food, water, masks and hand sanitiser to people in locked down sites, and that people under quarantine were being tested and monitored by medics.
"The companies are responding fully because they know that workers were put in quarantine as a precautionary measure to protect all of us," said Muhammed Hassan al-Obaidly, assistant under-secretary for labour affairs.
He said his department is working 24 hours a day monitoring companies, checking transactions, and contacting companies who are delaying payments.
The outbreak in Qatar’s old industrial zone has mainly put at risk workers who are employed in the area of car service centres, warehouses and small shops.
Qatar’s Supreme Committee, which is in charge of delivering the 2022 World Cup, said that so far there had been no cases of coronavirus on its sites, but health checks are regularly being carried out on those building stadiums.
A government spokesman said at the time of the outbreak two weeks ago: "The majority of (coronavirus) cases in Qatar to date have been located in the Industrial Area.
"Every effort is being made to prevent the spread of disease in Qatar and protect every member of the population. As a result, some areas of Qatar have been cordoned off to contain the virus."
Like other countries, Qatar has closed public venues and stopped all incoming flights.
The NGO coalition is also writing to other Gulf states with similar migrant populations.
- Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail
Image: Workers in Doha, Qatar (Alex Sergeev/www.asergeev.com/CC BY-SA 3.0)