Modern-day souks emerge in Qatar, for cheap migrant labor

Written by Daksha Prashar, CNN

It started more than 12 years ago.

Originally from Thailand, Thai-immigrant Ayn Po (“Ayn” means “port” in Thai) was staying with friends in Qatar in the wake of the 2003 Asian Games.

“There were about 2,000 Indians living in this tiny suburb of Doha and these days only 100 or 200 remain in the city,” says the 52-year-old migrant, who sells snacks from a cart at a sprawling outdoor market.

Ayn Po hawks her wares at a major outdoor market in Doha. Credit: Daksha Prashar

Alastair Noble, deputy head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Office for the Sahel in Dakar, Senegal, says that to bring order and wealth to cities across Africa and the Middle East, Qatar has begun building its own modern day souks to outsource labor to countries like Thailand.

Carefully-planned architecture is dotted around Doha and its outskirts. Credit: Daksha Prashar

“They always knew that they couldn’t grow on their own, so they had to look outside of Qatar to bring in foreign labor for construction,” Noble says.

Cairo, for example, built a railway from Port Said to Egypt’s capital. That project began decades before the Arab Spring — but brought Egyptians a better standard of living than many people could hope for at home. Similarly, Qataris are well aware that they don’t have their own infrastructure in Doha.

Workers at a construction site in Doha. Credit: Daksha Prashar

“These cities are used to bring in large numbers of people just to work. And countries like China and India provide these people as cheap labor to build these towns,” Noble adds.

Too much too fast

There has been a steady stream of reports over the last few years about exploitation and poor treatment of migrant workers, who account for more than 90% of Qatar’s population.

Migrant laborers regularly set off for work at the early hours of the morning. Credit: Daksha Prashar

“We know that some of the construction workers are supposed to be employed for between one to three years and their visas are renewable,” says Deborah Odrick, executive director of advocacy group the Migrant Workers’ Protection Project in the US.

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