Oxygen Park, Doha – As a football game is on full throttle and families are enjoying a pleasant picnic on National Sports Day, Mercy Hare Arevalo, a Filipino security guard, is on a 16-hour shift ensuring public safety amidst the rise of COVID-19 cases in Qatar.
Migrant workers in Qatar like Arevalo do not get a day off on this public holiday. From providing security on campuses to ensuring cleanliness around Education City, on this day and most others, their work is not only demanding but also lacks recognition. This workforce in Qatar is more than 2 million making up about 95% of its labor force. Many workers, like Arevalo, move to this country in hopes of gaining financial stability. However, Qatar has been widely criticized for exploiting workers with unfair wages and excessive working hours.
The country will be making history by hosting the upcoming FIFA World Cup in 2022 with its first kickoff in the Middle East. This noteworthy achievement could not have been possible without migrant workers. From building the stadiums, providing security to the fans, to ensuring transport and providing a clean environment, this is the work of an invisible workforce at play.
While Arevalo doesn’t get to spend Sports Day indulging herself in activities, a 16 hour shift is normal for her. After completing her 10 hour day shift at Weill Cornell Medical College Qatar, she is on duty for another six hours in Oxygen Park from Monday to Wednesday every week for Ladies Night – a night exclusive for women to enjoy in the park.
Where scenes of various sporting activities can be seen all around Education City, Debram, an 18-year-old cleaner in HBKU Center whose last name will not be disclosed for privacy reasons, is daydreaming about playing cricket with his friends. However, the grim reality of his situation sets in faster than the first over of a cricket match. “After the tiring shift of 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., we can’t find time to play,” Debram said. With an 800 Qatari riyal basic salary, he wishes he could join his family back in Nepal but he is unable to. For him, this job is a “compulsion.”
People with rolled up sleeves, in exercise gear running through the streets of Doha, and putting their stamina to the test is a popular scene on Sports Day. However, this day is special for Qatar’s migrant labor force for a different reason. On this day, they finally feel like they are part of the community. Watching residents break away from their daily troubles with tennis or football, Arevalo recalls last year’s volleyball tournament for Qatar Foundation contractors. “We were champions. On Sports day, we no longer feel like security staff but we feel just like you,” she said while keeping her sports day spirits high, despite the fact that she didn’t get to be involved this year.
The feeling of not being equal is shared by many others like Arevalo. Sitting on a small chair in the corner of the Student Center cafeteria entrance is Sharon, whose last name will not be disclosed for privacy reasons. She can be seen ensuring everyone has a mask on as they enter the building with a green Ehteraz application. Serving as a security guard for the past two years, Sharon has had to struggle to find a sense of equality in a society with a visible power hierarchy. “It becomes difficult when we have to ensure others are following COVID precautions and they can very easily remind us of our place [that is lower in society],” she stated.
It is true that each job has its own nature of demands but some can be more sacrificing than others. “I do enjoy sports but ever since I have been here I really haven’t gotten the chance to spend Sports Day properly,” she said while reminding a group of people to pull up their masks.
Their work can be so exhausting that a sense of freedom can get lost. So, it was no surprise that Sharon paused to answer when asked what she would do with a day off. Her response, however, was just as unexpected. She said that she would spend her day watching students in Education City and learning more about them. “I see so many students who come in here stressed with work, I want to be there for them.”
The Way Forward…
Hearing these stories should be a wake-up call for us; these people are working day and night to help us and their stories deserve to be recognized and valued.
While global stories of this pandemic are being told, acknowledging the lives of the frontline workers, those checking our Ehteraz apps, enforcing COVID-19 precautions and taking our temperatures, is the first step in paying them back for their services.
In November 2017, Qatar signed an agreement with the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) that included five areas worth reform, two of which are access to justice and worker’s voices. However, it is important to understand that a legal promise is not automatically translated into actual impact on the field until we start to see the world and the people around us with a new lens.
The impact of a smile as you walk past them, greeting them as you enter your campus, or simply taking the time to hear their story goes a long way in building a compassionate community. Arevalo was surprised and pleased to tell her story– nobody had stopped to ask her before. “It [telling her story] feels like magic,” she said.