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Fall ill or stay hungry? The summer lunch woes of workers in Qatar

Fall ill or stay hungry? The summer lunch woes of workers in Qatar

Lack of proper food storage facility creates health issues for workers, who either have to consume food that’s going bad or resume work hungry, writes Abu Taqiudin.

Almost every week Vijay K, 30, an Indian worker in Doha, suffers from stomach related complications, including pain and diarrhoea.

The problem recurs so frequent that he has given up on seeking medical consultation but instead, whenever he feels discomfort, he runs to the pharmacy with an old prescription and buys the same medicine again; within a day or two he would be fine.

Vijay also knows why he keeps falling ill. He spoke to JustHere while taking his lunch under the shade of a tree on Doha Corniche during the mandatory mid-day break.

“It’s this food that is making us sick every time,” he says. “We have to prepare it at night along with our dinner before we go to sleep, and store it in a container as there is no time for preparing it in the morning.”

They carry their lunch containers to work with them, and it rests outside through the morning. With temperatures reaching highs of 45C and 47C, the food goes stale quickly.

“We take the food whether it’s good or bad, we just take it. We need to be strong to work so we just eat our food and don’t care about its taste.”
Poor food and water storage

Doha-based dietician Kim Underwood explains that bacteria grows most rapidly between the temperatures of 4C to 60C. “This is known as the ‘Temperature Danger Zone,’ and potentially hazardous foods (those high in protein and moisture content) should not be left out in the Temperature Danger Zone for more than four hours. Rice, for example, contains a heat resistant bacteria called Bacillus cereus, and if it is not stored in the fridge within four hours, these bacteria produce toxins that will give you a mild vomiting illness shortly after you eat the contaminated food.” Sometimes it only takes 30 minutes to get sick.

Main food-related health issues:
  • Poor hygiene where food is made
  • Lack of storage facilities at work place
  • No awareness on food storage and safety
  • Reusing plastic water bottles
  • No proper shelter during midday break

Vijay and his colleague who identifies himself as Ashok, also notes that whenever they take their lunch they find it tastes different from the one they consumed the previous night. They suspect it could have even gone bad, but consume it all the same not wanting to resume work on an empty stomach.

“We take the food whether it’s good or bad, we just take it. We need to be strong to work so we just eat our food and don’t care about its taste,” says Ashok who also complains of frequent stomach ailments.

While food storage is one issue, the lack of hygiene in their accommodation, including the kitchen, could contribute to the problem of food going bad.

Underwood says there are few options to keep food safe outdoors. Some suggestions she has include, only taking food that does not require refrigeration, like a peanut butter sandwich, dried fruits, or consuming food within four hours of removing from the refrigerator.

However, a majority of the workers are from South Asia, and their dietary staple is rice.

Underwood also suggests that employers arrange for safe meals to be delivered to their place of work. Or that workers take cooler boxes with ice packs that ensure the meals are kept out of the danger zone temperatures.

Another health issue is to do with water consumption. In the last few weeks several initiatives, including that of See My Culture and Qatar Charity have seen distribution of fresh and cool water to workers.

Most workers re-use the large soda bottles made of plastic. They refill water from public fountains or the common water tank on the work site.

Underwood points out that some researchers have suggested that water bottles, which are designed for single use often contain bisphenol A (BPA), and if left in the sun or are re-used, this chemical leaches into the water and could have a carcinogenic effect. “The evidence has been reviewed but to date, has not been confirmed. In the market there are water bottles which are labeled as ‘BPA free’ and are designed for re-use. It is important though that if you are re-using a bottle, that you wash it thoroughly daily as bacteria may build up, another source of contamination.”

“We have to rest very near to the work site as our boss wants us to report back on time.”
Mid-day work ban

The mid-day work ban came into force from June 15 and will continue till August 31.

The ban is to ensure that during the hottest periods of the day, the workers were not exposed to the heat.

Speaking at the Doha Dialogue for migration 2014 last week, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Dr Abdullah bin Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi had said that the ministry was working to develop labour inspection and occupational health. He said the number of mid-day break inspectors this year had been increased from 150 to 200 inspectors and there was a possibility of doubling the number.

While worksites do suspend work between 11.30am and 3pm, not all companies provide shelter or transportation to the accommodation and back. As a result most workers have been found sleeping under tree shades, buildings under construction, parking lots, pavements and on mosque verandas during the breaks as the air conditioned mosques are also closed after prayer times.

“We have to rest somewhere near to the work site as our boss wants us to report back on time,” says Ahmed Sayyid another worker JustHere found resting in the veranda of a mosque.

Sayyid said that his ‘company bosses’ had told them they could not take them back to accommodation because it’s very far and there is traffic on the way that would delay their return for work.

He complains that they have to work outside in heavy clothing and that without proper air-conditioning during their breaks the cloying humidity wherever they stayed was making them very uncomfortable and rendering their resting useless, and only lengthened their work day.

[Photo courtesy: Habeeb Abu Futtaim on Flickr]

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