How free is the free visa?
I was walking towards my car outside Megamart when a young man stopped me. Looking a little nervous, he asked me if I were Indian. I responded in the affirmative, which seemed to relieve him, he proceeded to engage me in conversation:
“Sir, I’m new in Qatar, would you please help me?”
“What is the problem?”
Opening the tote bag slung across his shoulder, he showed me a few bottles of Attar-scented Arabian wood oils.
“Sir, would you like to buy some Attar? It is very good, and number one quality. From the best place in Saudi Arabia.”
“I do not want any perfume, sorry I don’t use Attar.”
“You can have them all for 120 riyals only,” he said pointing at five small bottles hidden away in his bag.
I was curious about this parking lot perfume salesman, and we spoke for a while. Mohammed Ajmal, 23, is from Rajasthan, India. He left his village in 2006 and ended up in one of Qatar’s upscale malls as a perfume salesman. He worked for three years and returned to India, as his sponsor did not extend his contract. He had to drop out of Grade 8 and become the sole breadwinner for his family. With poor job opportunities in Rajasthan, Ajmal heard about recent pay increases in the Gulf, and paid QR1500 to a friend in Qatar who secured him a business visa.
Ajmal had not eaten for the past day, and had not made a sale for two. He tries to look his best each morning – showering and shaving where he can; and wearing a freshly pressed shirt as often as possible.
“Where do you live, Ajmal?”
“Sir, please don’t tell anyone. I sleep in empty buildings, but for the past two nights I am sleeping, and showering in a mosque nearby,” he said pointing in the direction of C- Ring Road.
“Why are you doing that? Don’t you have a place to stay?”
“I have a small sharing room space with four other men, but I was not able to pay my rent fully for the past month. I still owe QR120.”
Ajmal had not eaten for the past day, and had not made a sale for two. He tries to look his best each morning – showering and shaving where he can; and wearing a freshly pressed shirt as often as possible. He hopes that his good appearance would help him land a job interview, and be a more successful Attar salesman. He used the 60 riyals he had left to purchase Attar, in hopes of selling them and finish paying his room rent.
Myth of the free visa
Ajmal’s narrative is not unique. This kind of ‘free visa’ scheme brings people who are told they do not need to work under a single kafil or sponsor. This unlawful practice states that people are free to work where they want, as long as they pay a certain amount to the person securing them the visa. The kafala or sponsorship system creates a situation where the employee is bound to an individual person or a company, with the power balance is in favour of the employer. While every non-Qatari employee in Qatar is under this sponsorship system, low-income workers are the most impacted. There are also countless others who are brought or come to Qatar under ‘free visas’ and end up selling perfume, driving private taxis, or working in construction of towers in the West Bay.
Ajmal still has a month and a half left before his visa expires, and hopes to land a job by then. He does not have an ID card, and is wary of being arrested as an ‘illegal worker.’ He is willing to do any kind of work, but hopes to become a driver here.
As of now, he seeks out Indians to sell attar to.
“I approach only Indian looking people. I tried talking to some Arab people, and some gora (white) people but they ignore me.”
He soon disappears amongst the sea of parked cars, trying to sell attar to unlikely Indian customers.
(This is the first in a series of articles that aims to raise awareness about issues of social justice, particularly that of migrant workers, and hopes to encourage readers to get involved in addressing them.)