With foreign workers long constituting a majority of the population in Qatar, snags in the labour market have often developed an international dimension to them. Nowadays too, the labour market is going through a period of important change. Some overseas suppliers of skilled and non-skilled workers have been tightening up on their expatriate numbers, while foreign workers already in Qatar are becoming more organised. At the same time, some companies are beginning to see overseas workers as not just a source of cheap labour, but as a useful market for their products.
The Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan are the main sources for overseas workers in Qatar, though there are also substantial communities from Bangladesh, Egypt and Yemen. Drawn by comparatively higher wages, they have come to dominate areas of non-skilled and semi-skilled employment.
Actual Qataris are widely thought to represent only about 150,000 people amongst the country's 700,000-strong population. This has given rise in recent years to "Qatarisation", policies aimed largely at the energy and industrial sectors which privilege the employment of Qatari nationals. However, other areas of employment continue to be largely the preserve of workers from overseas.
Many of these are also recruited overseas by employment agencies based in the countries of origin. This has sometimes given rise to a number of snags in contracts, with the terms workers say they agreed back home allegedly not being fulfilled on arrival. Conversely, others arrive in Qatar on tourist or short-term visas and then seek employment. This sometimes gives rise to complaints by other expatriates that wages are being depressed by those anxious to seek work on whatever terms will allow them to stay.
Two recent cases illustrate these difficulties. This week saw a group of Indonesian construction workers complaining at their country's consulate that they had been hired in Jakarta via a manpower agency that had promised them salaries of more than twice what they eventually found in their pay packets. While such problems have arisen before, the English-language daily The Peninsula reported August 16 that this was the first time such a large group of Indonesian workers had acted together to launch such a complaint.
Meanwhile, the Philippines Overseas Labour Office (POLO) in Doha recently made it compulsory for all Filipinos working in Qatar to have their contracts endorsed by the POLO. This was a move the office said represented an attempt to prevent wages being depressed by workers arriving and then seeking work on the spot. Some 35,000 Filipinos are currently employed in the country, according to the POLO.
Yet the picture is not all one of troubled labour relations. POLO was also able to report recently that since it began taking an active role in labour disputes in Qatar, the number of complaints it had had to deal with had fallen dramatically.
"Occasionally, we do get a case of some worker complaining about their sponsor or the company," Alex Maran, labour attaché at POLO told The Peninsula. Yet, "The POLO intervenes in these cases and usually, after a couple of sessions between us, the employee and the sponsor, it gets resolved peacefully to the satisfaction of all."
Likewise, the growth of other organisations representing the interests of their usually national groupings has served to ease friction between employers and employees.
Such groups have also started branching out their services - most notably into social security and insurance.
One such group is the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre-Qatar (KMCC-Q), which recently launched its second social security scheme.
"The scheme has been launched in association with the Qatar Islamic Insurance Company's Takaful programme," a KMCC-Q official told the Qatar News Agency on August 16. The scheme is open to all expatriates from the southern Indian state of Kerala and charges an annual premium of QR130 ($36).
Targeting low-income expatriates with such insurance schemes has become something of a speciality for the Qatar Islamic Insurance Company (QIIC). In June this year, the firm began offering low-premium death and accident insurance schemes for individuals; the scheme has had a remarkable take-up rate. Keralites have formed the core for this, thanks largely to close co-operation between QIIC and Keralite community organisations.
Many see such developments as also symptomatic of a growing sense of employment rights among expatriates. Qatar has also recently moved to legalise labour unions, which may take this organisational process to a further level.
Also making a change here are efforts by many labour-exporting countries to change the composition of the workforces they send overseas. Indonesia recently declared that it would be cutting down on the number of unskilled workers heading for the Gulf (some 17,000 Indonesians are estimated to be currently working in Qatar) and seeking to replace them with skilled, professional workers.
"We have a large number of skilled and experienced hands, especially in specialist sectors like aviation and shipping," Indonesia's ambassador in Doha, Abdul Wahid Maktub, told reporters on August 15, "and we wish to encourage their recruitment by Qatari companies."
Jakarta has also recently tightened the criteria for non-skilled workers seeking employment abroad.
This process - if realised - might also lead to a gradual raising of expatriate wage levels and develop a more financially secure foreign worker community. It will also most likely be good news for companies such as QIIC, who see this overseas workforce as a useful business opportunity.