Friday, May 13, 2011

A Story of a Not-so-Glamorous Life in the Gulf

Today I arranged for a cleaner to come by my apartment. A friend of mine recommended him; apparently he's a maintenance guy at some building but cleans my friend's apartment for extra money.

I'm like most people, I hate cleaning. My place isn't a pigsty but I'm definitely not good with sweeping and mopping floors in a timely manner. I'm all for having a cleaner come by once in a while.

When I spoke with the cleaner the night before his only request was that he be given enough time to do the job -- no rushing him or telling him he has to do everything in an hour. I was cool with that, who wants to rush a cleaner? I'd rather he take his time and do a good job. It didn’t matter how long it took anyway as he asked for a flat rate of QAR 40 ($US 10.80) each visit, instead of charging by the hour.

Yep, he wanted about $11. He was from South Asia and he probably made about QAR 500-600 ($US 140-170) a month at his regular job, working full-time six days a week. That means he makes about $0.65 an hour. $11 for a couple hours cleaning is, sadly, decent money.

The issue of South Asian laborers in the Gulf is one that doesn't get a lot of press in the West. We'll go on and on about whether women should be wearing veils and stuff like that but if you look at websites of groups such as Human Rights Watch one of the big issues in this region is the treatment of South Asian laborers.

They are brought into these countries by the tens of thousands to work in construction, security, cleaning, and any other menial job (shelf stacker at a grocery store, gas station attendant, tea boy, taxi drivers etc.). Many make only QAR 400-600 a month ($115-170). It doesn't seem like a lot of money to us but when you live in a village in rural India or Nepal, where unemployment is rampant and people live on $1 a day, getting a job for $0.55-$0.70 an hour is big money. And with about 1.6 billion people in South Asia competition is fierce. A British-Indian friend of mine once pointed out that for every labourer you see there were likely 20 trying to get that job.

Unfortunately it's not as easy as just getting the job, you have to get the visa as well. This leads to the real crime – “visa arrangers” back in their home countries who charge exorbitant fees to get these poor men their visa (and thus a job). The fees are typically $1000 and more, money that these guys don't have. Desperation takes them to money lenders, or to selling the small plot of land the family used as a farm. So for the next year or two most of the meager money they earn goes to paying lenders.

Then they have to hope and pray they have a good employer.

Once they arrive at their new job they are stuck. They can't quit, they owe money lenders or since they sold the family farm they have no way of earning a living when they return. Their family: a wife, children, and maybe his elderly parents who he is supporting, will be destitute. A plane ticket home will cost them at least four months wages. In Qatar you're not even allowed to change jobs to another Qatar company without a “no objection” letter from your employer. It is a situation that is ripe for exploitation by an unscrupulous employer.

So they toil in 45° heat on construction sites, or work 60 hours a week mopping floors, without complaint for fear of getting fired. They are then bussed back to their residence, typically on the outskirts of the city. Many are crammed four or eight to a room on bunk beds, and I have heard that some employers don't even provide air-conditioning. I wish I was joking that these residences are referred to by the cringe-inducing name "labour camps” but you occasionally see a real estate advertisement for a labour camp for rent or for sale. There are also reports of employers who make the laborers pay for food out of their own pocket, or not pay their salary for months at a time. Enforcement of employment law is lax.

Earning money is the reason they're here so there are an abundance of people around who will offer to do odd jobs for you. Clean your house, wash your car, help you move stuff, take your groceries to the car. Tips can be a big source of revenue.

I try to tip when I can. Gas attendants, the guys in the mall food court who clean tables and trays, grocery baggers, they all get tips from my friends and I. Two or three riyal is not much to me but can make a big difference to a labourer. One of my Qatari friends tips QAR 5-10 to the food court cleaners, he says they're some of the worst paid workers. A day’s wage for them is probably QAR 16.

So what happened with my new cleaner? He wasn't kidding when he said he didn't want to be rushed, it took him about three hours to clean my one-bedroom apartment! Not because he was slow but because he was so thorough. He removed all the books from bookshelves to dust the shelves, he wiped down the legs of chairs, he moved the furniture to sweep and mop underneath, he took everything out of the medicine cabinet to wipe it down, he did a fantastic job. Yet he was a little worried that I wouldn't think he did a good job -- he wanted me to do an inspection to see if I was happy.

Three hours work, for $11.

I gave him QAR 50, a 20% tip, and drove him back to the apartment building where he works, he had a shift starting later that afternoon.

I then took the car in to get something minor fixed and while I was waiting went to a nearby Western-style café. It was lunch time so I ordered a cappuccino and a sandwich and spent the next 45 minutes reading a newspaper and watching the news on the nearby television. When it was time to pick up my car I asked for the bill.

The cappuccino and sandwich was QAR 44.

I'm going to start paying the cleaner more.