By Peninsula team
DOHA: A rapid increase in the number of foreign workers recruited from Asian countries, especially in the construction sector, ahead of the 2022 Fifa World Cup, has put the embassies of their countries here in a not-so-comfortable situation, with more pressure on consular services and a rise in workers’ complaints.
A random survey conducted by The Peninsula among members of different Asian communities shows that very few are satisfied with the performance of their embassies.
Most respondents were critical of what they said were poor consular services provided by the missions.
Many said they didn’t want their names in print, apparently because of fear they might be singled out by the embassies of their countries.
A Nepalese worker complained about delays in consular services at the embassy.
“When we have a problem, we want the embassy staff to help us solve it. We know that they can’t solve all problems. Some days when we go to the embassy we have to wait a long time. It is especially difficult on a working day,” said the worker from Al Khor.
An Indian expatriate said the Indian embassy had a lot to do to address the problems of the rapidly growing Indian expatriate population in Qatar.
“The embassy requires bigger premises and there should be more counters for consular services. Currently, visitors are forced to wait for two to three hours. The Indian Cultural Centre is not providing all consular services,” he said.
The population of Indians here has increased substantially while the embassy remains challenged by its limited capacity in terms of staff and premises to cater to the community, said the Indian.
Most Sri Lankans this daily spoke to were bitterly critical of their embassy, its staff and services. Some alleged that the embassy staff showed favours to some visitors and ignored others. The respondents didn’t want to disclose their full names.
“I have not come across anyone who praises the embassy. Our embassy is not efficient enough. For people it’s a place they go to for their needs and pay for the services. We get our work done, but are not satisfied. If you know someone there, the work can be done easily. On top of everything, the consular fee is high,” said a Sri Lankan woman.
Several Bangladeshis contacted for comment also said that they were upset by the “poor” treatment they got at their embassy.
“They ( the embassy staff) are very inefficient. Sometimes they make mistakes in documents and give the wrong forms. Their behaviour towards the workers is not pleasing at all. There is no system to help the visitors,” said a young Bangladeshi woman.
“The embassy is the last hope people here have, but when we go there we are treated as outsiders, we are sort of lost at times. They should look at people’s problems more seriously and guide them by giving correct information, “said a Bangladeshi professional living here with his family.
None of the 17 Sri Lankans The Peninsula spoke to said they were satisfied with the services of their embassy. Nor do they think that the embassy would come to their rescue at a moment of crisis.
The majority of them said the embassy staff was cordial but not efficient, either because they did their jobs as a routine or they had limitations which they could not breach.
Some said the embassy staff treated people according to their appearance, and failed to give correct information to visitors.
“I have been to the embassy only twice, to renew my passport. On both occasions, I had to raise my voice to make them do the work fast. The worst thing I noticed there was that they judge people by their appearance and profession,” said Fernando, an engineer living here for more than five years.
He said he had come across a group of Sri Lankans whose salary had not been paid, and the embassy just gave them a letter addressed to their employer, which was not at all useful.
Sameera Kumara, a Sri Lankan taxi driver, was equally unhappy with the mission.
“Some of my colleagues have been to the embassy to speak about problems we face with the employer. The embassy didn’t take any firm step to solve the problem. If our embassy is strong employers will fear them.”
Indians who responded to this survey said they were mostly dissatisfied with the services of the embassy because of several reasons, mainly a lack of facilities despite an unprecedented growth in the size of the Indian community here.
Most of those interviewed said quality and efficiency in services had deteriorated as the authorities had not done much to keep pace with the rising demand for services offered by the embassy, while fees for different services had increased significantly.
“The services, in general, and emergency services, in particular, need massive improvement as well as expansion as the population of the Indian community has increased significantly over the past few years. Work that used to take two days now takes nearly 10 days or more,” said a social worker hailing from the southern state of Kerala.
The social worker, who is in constant touch with senior embassy officials to solve the problems of unskilled workers, especially issues related to passports and other travel documents, said: “The additional fees and fines for issuing new passports under emergency services (in case of loss, damage or expiry of passports), is very high. It may vary between QR525 and QR800, which many find unaffordable. Just imagine the situation of a construction worker whose monthly salary falls in that range.”
He said that the newly-amended labour law prohibited companies from keeping the passports of workers in their custody. So workers, especially those who are not very careful about the validity of their passports, often land in trouble when they turn up at the airport with expired passports.
Citing the example of an unskilled worker who had to travel in an emergency, he said: “On reaching the airport he was told that his passport had expired and he could not travel. He applied for a new passport under the emergency service, but did not receive it in time. After my intervention with some senior officials at the embassy, the embassy staff swung into action, but to no avail, as the signing official was on leave that day.
“In brief, by the time the new passport was made, the validity of his exit permit had expired. So does it qualify as an emergency service,” he wondered.
“Although whenever I call embassy officials I find them cordial and they extend their support, is it practically possible for me and people of my ilk to call senior officials daily to get work done?”
However, he admitted that after the embassy introduced revised working hours things had improved marginally, but said expansion of the facilities was badly needed.
Zakria Siddiqui (not his real name), an Indian who recently became a father, said: “A so-called birth certificate is issued against a fee of about QR85 on a simple A4-sized sheet by our embassy, while a similar certificate is offered by Women’s Hospital for a token money of QR20, that too on much better paper that is more presentable.”
“In my experience, I found the Qatari establishment, especially the Labour Department, more supportive than my own embassy,” said Samrat Bhattacharya (not his real name), who recently quit a leading India-based engineering company in Qatar.
Some Indian expatriates appreciated the embassy’s quick response in doing their work. However, some said that they were sceptical about getting any help from the embassy if they landed in trouble. According to them, the embassy’s record of addressing the problems of labourers was not encouraging.
“I found the behaviour of Indian embassy officials friendly, but their cordial behaviour should be accompanied by concrete action. When we approach officials to resolve problems, they promise to take action, but nothing happens ultimately. This raises questions about the credentials of the Indian embassy,” said another Indian expatriate.
“There are some Indian expatriates who are close to officials of the Indian embassy and they get special treatment. I think officials should treat every Indian equally,” said another Indian.
PAKISTANIS and BANGLADESHIS
The embassies of Pakistan and Bangladesh need to improve their services, said expatriates from these countries in Qatar. They were unhappy at the time taken by these embassies to address their problems. The expatriates, who work hard here, complained that they had to wait for hours at the embassy to get their work done. Though these embassies scored well on some counts, the expatriates want these embassies to embrace new ways to become more efficient.
“There are some areas where the Pakistani embassy needs to improve. We have to spend the entire day to get any work done by the embassy. The embassy should introduce an online system to save the time of expatriates. Instead of first taking a token and then waiting for hours for our turn, the embassy can send us a text message giving the details of our appointment date and time,” said a Pakistani expatriate.
“There are many people who are close to the embassy and they are given special treatment by embassy officials. These people are usually rich and influential. They are not required to get a token and wait in queue to get their work done.”
The most annoying thing for Bangladeshi expatriates was the time consumed in getting their work done. According to them, the embassy should embrace new technology to serve expatriates better.
“Overall, I am satisfied with my embassy. When I went to the embassy for some work I did not find anyone demanding money to do my work. But it takes a long time for us to get our work done. At a time when the whole world is adopting new technology, our embassy is still doing work manually. Expatriates still wonder what stops our embassy from using computers and other technologies. By embracing new technology, the embassy will be able to serve us better,” said Mohamed Saiful Islam Chowdhuri, who works in Khaled Cement and lives in Najma.
“I have seen that many people who are influential get special treatment at the Bangladesh embassy.”
Nepalese expatriates complained that the embassy was understaffed, which causes delays.
“I think lack of staff is the main cause behind the slow functioning of the Nepalese embassy. The embassy should add more people so that the workload on the employees is reduced,” said a Nepalese labourer.
“Currently, embassy official are less friendly towards expatriates because they are overloaded with work. If their workload is reduced they will become happy and will be more efficient,” he added.
“The chances of the Nepalese embassy coming to my rescue, if I get into trouble, are not high because the officials are overburdened,” said Shankar, who works as a machine operator.
“When the officials are struggling to do their routine work, how can we expect them to reach out to a Nepalese who is in trouble,” he asked.
“I think the embassy of Nepal makes efforts to take up the issues of labourers. I have seen some of my colleagues getting their problems resolved with the help of the embassy,” said a Nepalese expatriate who works in a food joint.
DOHA: The Philippine embassy came out with flying colours in the Peninsula survey.
Asked whether the embassy would come to their aid if they were in trouble, all the respondents in the survey said yes.
More than a year after the embassy moved to bigger premises in the Jelaiah area, Filipinos here say there is evident improvement in its services.
This newspaper spoke to a cross section of the community’s members and the majority said services at the mission had never been better.
“The new embassy is better equipped, systematic and serves more people because it is now departmentalised, with separate areas to deal with specific concerns,” said Mike Saratan, an employee of Philippine School Doha, adding that the staff were more professional, approachable and aware of their purpose, which is to serve Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).
Citing an instance, he said when he renewed his passport late last year, he was notified by the embassy by a text message that his new passport was ready for collection, sparing him the trouble of following up.
Last month, the Philippine embassy, with assistance from the Philippine Independence Day Organising Committee, installed a new queue management system, which has helped ease crowding at the mission.
A large number of respondents also said that there had been an improvement in the attitude and behaviour of the embassy staff, although some said they were not cordial at all times.
“Maybe because of the bulk of work; they have many papers to process during peak days. But they are public servants and it is expected of them to treat everyone with a smile,” said a Filipino IT expert who has been in Qatar for five years now.
With regard to whether some people received special treatment, opinion was split.
“When the ambassador took his post five years ago, this was one of the problems he addressed. He wanted to ensure the front desk learned how to treat people equally,” said a Filipino media professional.
One of the respondents said special treatment was definitely given to some, but by the staff, not embassy officials.
“There is no special treatment when it comes to Ambassador (Crescente R) Relacion himself. He is very approachable and helps anyone who asks for help,” said a Filipino engineer, adding that the ambassador was also active on social media, making everyone feel there was no barrier between the community and the embassy.
The embassy, together with the Philippine Overseas Labour Office (POLO) and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), extends services to OFWs, protecting their rights and promoting their welfare.
The POLO/OWWA office has been home to distressed OFWs, and accepts runaway housemaids and abused workers as long as it can accommodate them.
“In December 2012, there were more than a hundred distressed OFWs under the care of POLO/OWWA, but last December we saw only half the number, maybe they have already gone home,” said a Filipina who conducts an outreach programme for distressed OFWs.
The two bodies also offer training programmes for Filipinos, such as computer literacy classes to help them upgrade their skills and qualifications to land a better job or start a business.
However, POLO and OWWA do face issues, such as the lack of a hotline and running out of Overseas Employment Certificates (OECs), which every OFW needs to exit the Philippines and return to the host country.
“I always attempt to call them to inquire about the Overseas Employment Certificate whenever I go for vacation, but their lines are always busy,” a Filipino IT expert said, adding that it was very inconvenient to get an OEC in the Philippines, unlike in the POLO/OWWA office here, which is a one-stop shop.