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 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
▲ A migrant worker at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel