Dozens of Turkish workers who were laid off in Qatar before their contracts expired have been stranded in the tiny Gulf state because they are unable to repay credit extended by Qatari banks.
Although Turkey and Qatar have close ties, efforts exerted by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Qatari officials to secure the release of the Turks from a travel ban and other legal actions and help return them to their homeland have to a great extent failed.
The saga of the 52 Turkish workers started in November 2017, when they were hired as cooks to work for the Qatari Armed Forces on a five-year contract. In June 2020 they were abruptly laid off, leaving the workers in a precarious position because of debts to Qatari banks that they were unable to pay. The workers had been provided credit by banks based on the income they earned from their employment contracts.
Some of them managed to repay their debts by borrowing from families and friends in Turkey, but others have been stranded in Qatar since 2020 because they couldn't pay back the amount owed to the banks. The Turkish Embassy intervened to secure the release of the workers from the travel ban, but the efforts failed when the Qatari authorities balked at Turkey's pleas.
The failure to return the Turks from Qatar was confirmed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in a letter sent to parliament on February 20, 2023. He also revealed that more than 7,000 Turks obtained residency and work permits in Qatar between 2011 and 2021 based on official records provided by the Qatari authorities.
According to Çavuşoğlu's letter, Qatari authorities revoked an arrest warrant for one Turkish national, Murat Yavrum, in response to Turkish Embassy efforts on his behalf to wipe out or restructure his debt. The lifting of arrest warrant was conditional on Yavrum's repayment of the amount owed in full.
Turkish workers claim they were unlawfully dismissed from their jobs. They also allege that they were forced to sign documents in Arabic and English without understanding the content before being abruptly laid off. Şahin Gülmez, a 49-year-old cook who developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) while working for Qatari forces, accused the Turkish Embassy of not helping them out of the predicament they found themselves in, according to Turkish media coverage.
Gülmez said the Turks were paid on average 8,000 Qatari riyals a month when they were working for the armed forces. After speaking with Turkish Ambassador to Qatar Mehmet Mustafa Göksu, a political appointee and non-career diplomat who agreed to meet with the workers on November 13, 2020, when the issue was raised in the Turkish Parliament, Gülmez said they were urged to work as a cheap laborers for a Turkish contractor for roughly half of what they were paid before.
According to the ambassador's proposal, the cooks would be working for a catering company in Doha owned by Hüseyin Bozdağ, a businessman close to Turkish President Erdoğan and deputy chairman of the Turkey-Qatar Business Council, which operates under the Turkish government's Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK). The workers were promised a paycheck of 3,500 Qatari riyals. The ambassador also said Turkey would pay the workers an additional 2,500 riyals under the table. Suspecting foul play in the proposal, Gülmez said they refused because it was unclear how the additional money would be paid by the embassy.
Nuh Demir, also a cook, confirmed the proposal made by the Turkish ambassador and said they would not want to work for low wages and be exploited by Bozdağ. He said he wanted to return to Turkey but was unable to do so because of the travel ban.
Bozdağ, the owner of the Yemek Istanbul catering firm, also operates its Qatari affiliate, Yemek Doha Catering Services, which secured lucrative contracts in the country. It employs 1,800 people in 43 locations in Qatar.
In a video posted online, another cook, Cuma Şirin, questioned the supposed Turkey-Qatar brotherhood, asking what that brotherhood really means when Qatari authorities fired them, leaving them out on the street. He claimed as many as 200 workers were victimized and don't know what to do.
Turkey and Qatar have developed close ties under Islamist President Erdoğan, who cultivated a personal relationship with the Qatari royal family. In 2017 Turkey established a military base in Qatar, where it maintains some 3,000 troops from the Land Forces Command and plans to expand the base with naval and air assets. Turkey also deployed more than 3,000 police officers to Doha during the FIFA World Cup last year.
The Erdoğan government sided with Qatar in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties with the country and took a number of punitive measures against the emirate, including imposing a total blockade. Turkey helped Qatar bypass the blockade and provided a logistical lifeline during the embargo.
Turkey and Qatar have joined forces in supporting Islamist groups in Syria and Libya and have protected the Muslim Brotherhood network from the wrath of Egypt and other Gulf states.
Qatar has long been on the receiving end of criticism when it comes to protecting the rights of laborers in the country. According to Amnesty International, the exploitation and abuse of foreign workers have been rampant, with workers exposed to forced labor, unpaid wages and excessive working hours.
Although Qatar signed an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2017 to tackle labor problems and harmonize its domestic laws with international labor standards, the reality is far from the promises made by Doha.
Qatar's "Kafala" system of sponsorship-based employment, which legally binds foreign workers to their employers, has led to serious abuses which until recently prevented workers from changing jobs or even leaving the country without their employer's permission. This trapped migrant workers in a cycle of abuse, says Amnesty. Qatar has made some changes to the Kafala system, but problems still remain.
Other problems included high levels of worker debt caused by illegal and unethical recruitment practices, the late and non-payment of wages, barriers to obtaining justice when rights are violated, the prohibition of trade unions and the failure to enforce labor laws and penalize employers who abuse their workers.
Qatari authorities can prevent workers from leaving the country if they have incurred debts with Qatari banks and other institutions. They must be free of debt to exit the country, which apparently is the case for the Turkish cooks.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.