A French footballer has threatened to go on hunger strike in a desperate bid to leave Qatar with his young family.
Zahir Belounis, 33, has been trapped in Qatar for two years. His club, Al-Jaish, refuses to sign his exit visa unless he drops a court case against them for 23 months of wage arrears.
“This is a real nightmare,” Belounis told Equal Times. “It is very hard for my family and myself. I’ll go on hunger strike if nothing happens, because that is the only thing I have left.”
Belounis’ story comes hot on the heels of the launch of a new campaign by Equal Times and the ITUC urging FIFA to “Rerun the Vote” so that the 2022 World Cup can be held in a country that respects workers’ rights.
More than a million migrant workers make up 94 per cent of the labour force in Qatar. Most work in the construction industry and face terrible working conditions: 15 hours days, six days a week for an average of 8 US dollars a day.
Despite being a footballer, Belounis – a midfielder who has played club football in France, Malaysia and Switzerland – has also been the victim of exploitation in Qatar.
In 2007, he signed with Al-Jaish, a club which has links with the Qatar Army and a close relationship with the German Bundesliga team FC Schalke 04.
When Belounis’ first contract ended in 2010 he told the club he wanted to leave, but at a meeting in Vienna Al-Jaish bosses convinced him to sign a five-year contract with the club.
As team captain, Belounis led Al-Jaish from Division 2 to the Qatar’s premier Stars League.
At one stage, he was even made a temporary Qatari citizen to allow him to play for Al-Jaish in the 2011 Military World Cup in Brazil.
No contract, no pay
On his return to Qatar, however, his citizenship was removed.
Belounis was told that he had been loaned to a Division 2 club, Al-Markhya, and that his contract with his original club would be honoured in full.
After months of waiting for payment, Belounis launched legal proceedings to recover the money owed but had to change lawyers when he found out that the firm he had engaged had close links to senior Al-Jaish figures.
The club, which had failed to register him as a player with the national football federation for his first four years in Qatar, denies that he is under contract – although they still allow him to live in club-owned accommodation.
At the end of his loan period, he asked for the Al-Jaish contract to be honoured, but they refused.
Instead, he was told by the club to sign a document confirming that he was owed nothing, and after that he would be paid.
He alleges that Al-Jaish Sports Director Youssef Dasmal then told him that if he didn’t sign the document, the club would not allow him to leave Qatar.
Under the notorious “kafala” system it is the employer of any migrant worker who has the power to decide if they will be given an exit visa to leave the country.
Al-Jaish will not give Belounis an exit visa unless he withdraws his complaint. “But I will not do so. It is a point of principle for me. I haven’t been paid for the last 23 months, it is intolerable.”
Belounis says the experience has really taken a toll on him and his family.
“The stress on my wife and two young children is intolerable. We live on the few remaining reserves we have and we have a little help from the French community.”
“Open your eyes”
Belounis’ experience is far from unique.
Moroccan international Abdeslam Ouaddou was finally able to leave the country in November 2012 and return to his home in Nancy, France, after a dispute with his club, Qatar Sports Club. He is still embroiled in a fierce legal battle to get the wages he is owed.
“I was only allowed to leave Qatar when I made so much noise that the club gave me and my family an exit visa to avoid public embarrassment,” Ouaddou told Equal Times.
“I will continue to fight for my rights from here in France, and Zahir should be allowed to do the same. Not to mention the thousands of ordinary migrant workers who are today being treated like slaves in Qatar.”
Hundreds of migrant workers in Qatar die each year. Qatar is planning to bring a further one million people into the country to complete stadia and other facilities for the World Cup.
Unless real labour reforms are undertaken, many more will die.
A new workers’ charter was recently launched to “ensure a lasting legacy of worker welfare standards in Qatar" according to Dario Cadavid, Assurance and Integration Manager of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee.
But ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow criticised the charter – which is yet to be made public – for doing nothing to protect migrant workers.
“There have been lots of promises in recent years, but no action. Now we are being asked to believe that a Charter which isn’t even public will solve all the problems,” she says.
“Migrant workers need freedom of association and other fundamental rights which, as a member of the International Labour Organisation, Qatar must implement.”
For Belounis, the time has also come for Qatar to do the right thing.
“I do have a lot of esteem for this country, its leaders, but there are dishonest people in Qatar,” says Belounis.
“I have one thing to say: listen to me, and open your eyes.”