In the Desert


In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

(From The Black Riders and Other Lines, 1895)


A labour camp in the middle of the desert near Al Khor.

In the bazaar of Souq Waqif in Doha, where locals and tourists mingle, there are alleys filled with caged birds—macaws with long colorful tails, falcons perched on stumps, pigeons. Their prices range from a few riyals to thousands. It’s a sight to break any poet’s heart.

“The Qataris are very fond of birds, especially falcons,” says a friend who has brought me here. Just after we pass a stable with Arabian horses, we stop for a second in front of a hospital for falcons. Behind the polished glass, the room looks spotless and opulent, like most places in Doha.

“They have a hospital for falcons?” I ask him, incredulous. “And to think of the laborers. Dying in camps like that.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a hospital for falcons in Doha. There are hospitals for animals in wealthy countries all around the world, many of which are in better shape than the hospitals for humans in places like Nepal. But I can’t help comparing the condition of the caged birds to the condition of another group of caged beings: the migrant laborers in their camps.

The laborers recognize this comparison and frequently point out the sub-human conditions of their existence. “To them we aren’t humans,” one says, when I raise the issue of labor conditions at construction areas and camps. Near one of the labor camps that houses most of the five hundred thousand Nepalis working in Qatar, we spot a few camels in an enclosure.

“The Arabs really love their camels,” says my driver, a Nepali man in his forties. “They tell the worker, ‘You can die, I can replace you, but make sure the camel doesn’t die.’”

“It’s as if we’re not human,” says eighteen-year-old Pratham Rai* from Bhojpur as he recounts his pain an hour later. We are sitting in his room at the camp. The room is cramped: ten bunks have been squeezed inside and sweaty bodies crowd onto the mattresses, trying to escape the heat. In each room you enter at this camp, the smell of sweat is overpowering. “The food is bad, the accomodation is bad, and it’s so croweded I don’t get a chance to shower in the toilet until 10 p.m.”

I am here to visit labor camps. In each camp at some point or other one statement surfaces over and over: “It’s as if we’re not humans, haami ta manchhe nai hoina jasto.

Labour camps are a giant step backward for workers rights

Throughout the journey, I can’t shake the question: is this slavery?

I do not know what counts as slavery. The word brings to mind images of people shackled and shipped to America from Africa to pick cotton. In my mind, perhaps due to excessive consumption of Hollywood, I associate slavery with something white men did to black men. It’s a thing of the past, not something that happens in our community today. In Nepal, we are taught in school that Chandra Shumsher abolished slavery, and without giving it much thought, many assume that today we are in a post-slavery age.

Maybe it’s because slavery makes people uncomfortable. We like to think that we have become more civilized since the time of Chandra Shumsher, or the time of colonialism and feudal societies where people were traded like cattle. Within Nepal, perhaps the reason many don’t want to acknowledge slavery has something to do with the fact that their families used to keep (or still do keep) bonded laborers, such as kamaiya and kamlari, or have benefitted from forced labor. Until a decade ago, most media outlets called kamaiyas and kamlaris “indentured servants,” or “bonded laborers,” rather than “slaves.” Perhaps such terms sound less immoral, less evil. Slavery implies direct violence. A stick. A whip. A chain.

Even today, many think slavery is too strong a word to describe the lives of the millions trapped by povery and oppressive laws, turned into commodities to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Slavery doesn’t quite apply to those who are forced to work abroad just to survive. It was their choice to leave, after all. Best give them other names. To accept that they are modern-day slaves is to accept the moral implications that that term suggests. It means accepting that a great cruelty is being inflicted on the poor. And that someone is responsible.

Outside a cement mixture company.

Driving from labor camp to labor camp, we pass hundreds of trucks ferrying cement and sand to construction sites. Towers are going up almost everywhere in Qatar. Old buildings are being torn down to make room for the new. The cityscape is littered with gigantic cranes. Qatar is bursting with construction that doesn’t halt when the sun sets over the desert. Men in jumpsuits, some old, some young, with their faces masked to protect against the dust and sun, move in the shimmering heat under cranes as tall as the Pyramids. In the evening, ready to board the bus that takes them back to their camps, their eyes are dull. Everyone looks stunned.

A day later, I am led to camp Matrix, which houses the workers employed by the Matrix International Contracting Company W.L.L. We drive off the highway into the desert, past large, lavish villas, to reach the camp.

The term “labor camp” is common in Qatar; here it does not seem to carry the stigma of its twentieth-century usage.

Once inside, I see rows and rows of box-like rooms stacked together in the sand, away from the markets and the neighborhoods of the rich. Birendra Bhattarai, who arrived from Sunsari District and now lives in a square room with 20 others, shares his experience with the company:

“We are bought and sold to different contractors every month. During the two years that I’ve been here, I’ve been sold to different construction projects seventeen times. We are no better than sheep and goats.”

Trades such as these—carried out by “supply companies” that receive a fixed sum per worker from the construction projects–are not isolated incidents that the international media are using to tarnish the country’s reputation, as the official Qatari line claims. This is the experience of thousands. One need only visit the labor camps to confirm it.

Despite their hard work, the workers are not welcome. The rich would rather not see the poor. “The city has new rules. All camps have to be transferred outside the city,” said a bus driver parked by a petrol station. The big shoppig malls have “family day” on Fridays, which means they can’t go there on the only day they don’t have to work. In any case, most camps, in the desert, are cut off from the city.

Once inside the camps, it is difficult to get out, even if it just to get the paperwork in order. Troubled workers become enraged when I mention the Nepali embassy. Just getting there costs more than what a worker typically makes in a day.

I decide to visit the Nepal embassy to see for myself.

For those that make the trek, the embassy is like a busy bazaar. Within its sweat-smudged walls, workers line up for their turn to receive a machine-readable passport (which could take up to thirteen months, one man in line told me), or to air their grienvances to the government’s staff. According to embassy employees, about a hundred complaints are filed each day.

If you can make it to the embassy and get your complaint heard, you are referred to a labor court. Again, just getting to the labor court is expensive, particularly for a worker who has been cheated of a salary for months.

Amid the throng of people seeking docuements and protection, a group of four men narrate how they have not been paid for five months by their contracting company, Tornado Trading and Construction Company W.L.L.

One of them, a man in his thirties, who has been in Qatar for more than two years, pours out his sorrows.

“My father is on his deathbed. Every day my wife calls me, crying on the phone to come home. But I can’t leave until I get an exit permit. I want to get what I’m owed and go home.”

While he narrates his grief, his friend, Dharmendra Ray, who speaks only Maithili, looks on with sorrow. His documents say he is about thirty, but he already looks over forty. He says he doesn’t even want the money anymore. He just wants to leave. But he can’t. He has no money for food or a ticket home. And he doesn’t have his passport with him, or an exit permit. The labor court refused to look into his case because he’d complained once before and withdrawn his complaint. He was told the only option he had was to fight at the Qatari high court.

Because he dared to go to the embassy and the labor court, his boss has promised to “make Ray rot in Qatar forever.”

In a different room few kilometers away, Ram Bahadur Khadka, Arun Poudel, Sanjay Harijan, and Dil Yadav contemplate how to get back home. The labor court won’t hear their cases because their company, they’ve been told, was “blacklisted” for flouting labour laws a few months back.

“Our only option is to get arrested. The CID police will detain us for three months and then send us on a plane. Maybe if a friend buys us a ticket in jail, they’ll send us home earlier,” Ram says. For now they borrow money and run errands for the shops in their neighborhood to earn enough to eat.

The oldest and youngest labourers your reporter met in Qatar. Both worked in gas plants, for now, and were cheated by the supply companies. Qatar has the biggest gas deposits deposits in the world.

In simple terms, slavery is the buying and selling of humans as property. There are other definitions, including one from the International Labour Organization:

“[A]ll work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” (Article 2.1)

If we accept this definition, the experience of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Nepalis, Bangladeshis, Indians, and North Koreans working in Qatar is that of slaves tricked into jobs they hate. The exact number of enslaved is unknown because research into the issue is not encouraged by the rulers of Nepal, Qatar or other countries racing to the ugly bottom of the globalized economy.

This does not mean that all workers in Qatar are slaves, many have decent jobs, with decent incomes, and their employers give them permission to leave the country when they want. Some have even participated in the human trade themselves, opened their own companies and duped boys into forced labor for a handful of riyals. Migrant labor has two faces: one benign, for richer people; another brutal, for poorer, darker people.

A young taxi driver outside the embassy, everyone’s object of criticism.

At a Nepali restaurant in Doha, men discuss the changes promised by the Qatari government this month. Similar discussions are being held elsewhere in the city, from labor camps to sanitized Facebook walls, where workers post carefully constructed images of themselves in Qatar for their families back home.

“Have they abolished the kafala system yet?” a Nepali waiter asks, referring to the Qatari law that makes workers dependent on their employers, from healthcare to exit permit. The Qatar government announced this month that it will propose changes to some aspects of the system, but has not said when. The resultant buzz has created hope and annoyance.

A Nepali official at the embassy complained that the media has misinformed the public, and now someone calls every so often to ask if he can change employers or go home. The official does not believe there will be any substantial change that will improve the workers’ conditions. The reason? Qatari businessmen are worried that if workers are allowed to change bosses, all of their workers will leave. He thinks it is a collective guilty conscience that is delaying change.

The irony for Nepalis is that a system such as kafala would be illegal in Nepal, where the Supreme Court has abolished bonded labor. But that hasn’t stopped the revenue and remittance-hungry country. Nepal’s government continues to send, even encourage, large numbers of men and women to seek employment under a system that, in essence, makes them slaves.

(*The names of some laborers have been changed.)

Cover photo: Tyre marks made in the desert dust by buses ferrying labourers to work sites from the labour camps.