“Let me tell you about just one case,” I said to Nasser bin Abdullah al-Hemidi, the Qatari Labour Minister.
“Let me tell you a story of one worker among the thousands of migrant workers here in Qatar who are trapped by unfair laws.”
And so I told him about the case of Benjamin Cruz.
Two months ago Benjamin sent me an email.
“Dear Mam,” he wrote. “I need your help.”
“My employer halved my wages, and changed my job so I’m cutting heavy marble.
“I had to do something, so I filed a case in the Qatari labour court. It cost me all the savings I had to make the complaint. I reported my case to the National Human Rights Committee. That was 15 months ago and nothing has happened.
“I can’t work, so I can’t earn any money. I’m sleeping on a friend’s sofa, as I can’t live at the labour camp anymore.
“My employer refuses to sign my release papers to let me go work for someone else. Now he’s handed my passport over to the Ministry of the Interior and I can’t leave the country.”
Thousands of workers like Benjamin are trapped like this in Qatar; where laws are stacked against them, where there is no independent grievance process for workers and employers to settle their differences.
In a country with 1.2 million migrant workers, this is a legal disaster for workers. Labour lawyers would be shocked at how a set of laws could favour one side over another.
Our legal team started to negotiate with the Qatari employer.
They appealed to a simple and trusted legal tactic – the cost of legal fees. If you let Benjamin go free, they bargained, he will drop the case against you and you no longer have to pay your daily lawyers’ fees.
For this boss, like many others the sums added up.
So he agreed to set Benjamin free, and sign a golden piece of paper for Qatari migrant workers – the ‘No Objection Certificate’ – which release a person to work for another employer.
But that is not where our story ends.
As Benjamin’s passport had been lodged with the Ministry of the Interior he faced a fine to get it back of US$1600 because his employer reported him as a runaway, despite denying him work.
For a man who normally earns US$400 a month but has not worked for 15 months, this is a barrier of epic proportions.
And this is the curious situation that Benjamin found himself in.
“I want to ask you, what can we do for this man?” I said to the Labour Minister.
“I will go and pay his fine myself at the Ministry of Interior, but this situation where your own government department makes life impossible for guest workers in your country is wrong.”
There was a silence. “You would pay?” the Minister exclaimed.
“If I have to, if your own government is going to punish this impoverished man,” I replied.
“But he has broken the law,” the labour ministry officials told me.
“He stopped work for his employer, and now he must pay the fine.”
“A man who was exploited, who had his wages cut in half, was forced out of his job. Has he really committed a crime,” I asked.
“If you believe this is a crime, and there is nothing you can do, then I will go and pay the fine this afternoon.”
Within minutes, guarantees were given, a phone call was made, and promises to return his passport were in place.
Later that day the Benjamin was driven to the outskirts of Doha in a Labour Ministry car, to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Division.
It is a dusty desert monolith, which houses the passports of thousands of runaways in the tiny gulf state.
A state where there is nowhere to run.
As the left-handed CID chief signed his papers, the labour bureaucrat accompanying him whipped out his Blackberry from under his robes and asked for a photo with the newly-free Benjamin Cruz.
We are happy for Benjamin.
But what will the Qatari government do with the tens of thousands of other cases of workers denied wages, medical care and adequate housing?
The answer they gave me is that if a worker signs a contract, he must follow it, with no level playing field to object if the employer changes the contract or doesn’t pay the agreed wages, which happens all too frequently.
The government takes no responsibility to set a minimum wage, in their eyes the company sets it.
If a worker runs away, it is the workers fault.
There is no freedom of association, there are no unions to protect workers, there is no effective labour court or mediation service, there are no champions for workers.
It’s not just a curious case.
Sadly it’s a case where the laws are stacked against workers; that’s Qatar.
This opinion piece from Sharan Burrow was first published by Equal Times on 17 January 2013