A Qatari human rights official made a welcome call in Colombo this week on the protection of migrant workers: “Come to us (affected workers); you’ll get more relief than by going to the Sri Lankan Embassy,” he said.
Speaking to a group of government, trade union, recruiter and media personnel on Tuesday, Fahad Ahmad Almohammadi, Deputy Head of the Legal Department and Head of the Labour Rights Unit at the Qatar National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) said 90 per cent of the cases taken up by the NHRC have been won by the workers against employers.
During a visit to Colombo Mr. Fahad said “Even if troubled workers go to their embassy, those authorities will refer it to the Labour Department or the NHRC.” He was part of a team visiting Colombo to discuss migrant worker issues.
Thousands of Sri Lankan workers, mostly males, are based in Doha, capital of Qatar which is the fastest growing and among the most prosperous economies in the Middle East. Recent official data shows Qatar is recruiting more workers (per capita) than any other West Asian country.
More than a million Sri Lankans work in the Middle East with many facing disputes over employment contracts, wages, long working hours, and abuse and sexual harassment in the case of domestic workers.
Under a bilateral agreement between Sri Lanka and Qatar, endorsed by that Government, Sri Lankan workers are protected. In this context the Qatari official gave more assurances to workers at this week’s discussions in Colombo.
Mr. Fahad said under his country’s Constitution, every worker is equal before the law. “That means any foreign worker has the same rights as a local worker,” he said, adding that the NHRC is an independent body which provides a three-monthly and annual report to the Government.
He said Qatar is studying ways of imposing a rule where both agents (in Sri Lanka and in Qatar) are responsible for a worker for the full term (two to three years) of their contract instead of just three months now.
“One of the biggest problems is this short-term responsibility. After three months, workers become no one’s responsibility, according to current practicWe are aware of agents telling workers they could work in a place for three months and run away to another job,” he said. The biggest problems, he said, are poor contracts which are altered.
“Often workers complain to us that they have not received their salary for a year. This is not right,” he said.
Mr. Fahad said the main responsibility lies with the sending country with ‘many issues faced by us because problems are not ironed out at the sending end (particularly in poor contracts and not enough information given to the worker on their rights) ’.
Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLFEB) Additional General Manager L.K. Ruhunage told the meeting that in future all advertisements placed by agents offering jobs must carry the approved payment rates required by migrant workers with the telephone number of a bureau hotline.
The visiting team included Boyko Atanasov – ACIL Country Program Director - Qatar, Yemen and UAE, and Ellen Sana - Executive Director, Center for Migrant Advocacy- Philippines.