Vul­ner­a­ble work­ers in a land of five-star lux­ury

Ev­i­dence sug­gests some hospi­tal­ity staff in the world’s rich­est coun­try are be­ing paid below the min­i­mum wage

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Pete Pat­tis­son DOHA

The Marsa Malaz Kempin­ski ho­tel rises like a fairy­tale palace from a man­made is­land on an ex­clu­sive stretch of Qatar’s coast­line. Even by the stan­dards of the rich­est coun­try in the world, it oozes ex­cess. Its car parks are lined with Fer­raris and Rolls-Royces, a 20-me­tre chan­de­lier hangs in its mar­ble-lined lobby, and the royal suite goes for more than $15,000 a night.

The ho­tel, which opened in 2015, is pop­u­lar with Qatar’s elite, who gather there at week­ends to en­joy its lav­ish rooms and beach­front lo­ca­tion.

How­ever, life is very dif­fer­ent for those who guard the cars, clean the rooms and man­i­cure the lawns. They come from some of the poor­est parts of the world – south Asia, east and west Africa and the Philip­pines – but have paid large re­cruit­ment fees, some as high as $4,000, to work here.

Pay­ing fees to re­cruit­ment agents to se­cure a job in Qatar is a wide­spread prac­tice, but leaves work­ers vul­ner­a­ble to debt bondage and forced labour.

In­ter­views with 19 ho­tel staff re­veal mul­ti­ple al­le­ga­tions of breaches of Qatar’s labour laws, in­clud­ing salaries below the min­i­mum wage. The find­ings re­veal for the first time that the well-doc­u­mented ex­ploita­tion of con­struc­tion work­ers in Qatar ex­tends to the hospi­tal­ity sec­tor.

Kempin­ski Ho­tels, which has its head­quar­ters in Switzer­land, styles it­self as an ex­clu­sive, high-end brand, steeped in Euro­pean her­itage. Un­like many other in­ter­na­tional chains, Kempin­ski man­ages its ho­tels di­rectly rather than fran­chis­ing out the brand.

Re­spond­ing to al­le­ga­tions about re­cruit­ment fees paid by work­ers at the Marsa Malaz Kempin­ski to sub­con­tracted com­pa­nies, and the debt bondage that can re­sult, Kempin­ski Ho­tels said it had launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“Marsa Malaz Kempin­ski takes the al­le­ga­tions very se­ri­ously,” said a spokesper­son. “We are com­mit­ted to abid­ing by the high­est eth­i­cal stan­dards as an in­ter­na­tional lux­ury ho­tel op­er­a­tor. We ex­pect all sub­con­tract­ing com­pa­nies to abide by these same stan­dards. Due to the sever­ity of these al­le­ga­tions, we have launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and will take ap­pro­pri­ate re­me­dial ac­tion as re­quired.”

The tes­ti­monies are a stark warn­ing to ho­tel chains ea­gerly open­ing up new prop­er­ties in time for the 2022 foot­ball World Cup. The num­ber of ho­tel rooms in Qatar grew by 81% be­tween 2014 and 2018, to over 25,000.

Rafiq says he has tended the lawns sur­round­ing the Marsa Malaz Kempin­ski for three years, but he has not paid off the debt he in­curred to reach Qatar.

When a re­cruit­ment agent in his own coun­try offered him a job over­seas, with a salary of $345 a month, it sounded too good to be true. It was. Like many mi­grant work­ers from his south Asian na­tion, Rafiq handed over $4,000 as a fee to the agent – three times the av­er­age an­nual in­come in his coun­try. But at the air­port, he was given a con­tract to sign, which offered a salary amount­ing to half of what he was orig­i­nally promised. “I had no op­tion but to sign it,” says Rafiq. “I had al­ready paid so much.”

His co-worker was a victim of the same scam. “I was shocked to see [the con­tract]. I lit­er­ally be­came red. Then slowly I re­alised there was noth­ing I can do about it,” he says.

The ho­tel’s se­cu­rity guards say they fare lit­tle bet­ter than the gar­den­ers. James says he is work­ing 50% more hours than he signed up for. Asked how he feels about that, he replies, “Noth­ing. I need the money”.

Some say they get just four to five hours sleep a night, leav­ing them strug­gling on duty. “I would love to go out [and see Qatar] but … if I get a day off, I just sleep,” says John, a guard at the Marsa Malaz Kempin­ski. Work­ers’ names have been changed to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties

PETE PAT­TIS­SON IS A JOUR­NAL­IST BASED IN KATHMANDU

PETE PAT­TIS­SON

▲ A mi­grant worker at the Marsa Malaz Kempin­ski ho­tel

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