Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

The discovery of oil brought wage labor to Qatar, removing many pearl divers, fishermen, and herders from reliance on a subsistence economy that was plagued with privation, debt, and other hardships and setting them in a new system of relatively steady labor for cash. But the work force did not consist entirely of free males. In the early 1950s, there were about 3,000 slaves, brought from Africa, in the peninsula. The 250 slaves who were working for Petroleum Development (Qatar) in 1949 turned over 80 to 95 percent of their wages to their owners. (After the British political agent expressed his disapproval of the practice to the shaykh, the ruler decreed reluctantly that slaves could keep 50 percent of their wages.)

Because there were no labor regulations in the 1940s and 1950s, hours, conditions, and wages varied widely. Some workers were paid less than one rupee per day, others received as much as four rupees per day. (In contrast, a man working on a pearl boat might earn only sixty rupees in six months.) Sometimes overtime was compensated; at other times it was not. In the late 1930s and into the 1940s, workers put in seven-day weeks, with only one day off per month. Workers were often dismissed for minor infractions and endured humiliating treatment and difficult, dangerous conditions to hold their jobs.

The special skills of the pearl divers were used to help set up offshore rigs. Other workers were employed as drivers, cooks, and houseboys for British personnel, and still others were employed as roustabouts. There were four levels of salaries and amenities in Petroleum Development (Qatar). At the top were the British engineers and foremen, next the clerks (mostly Indians), then the drivers, and then the laborers at the bottom of the pay and accommodation scale. Local merchants acted as representatives of the oil company and collected one rupee from Qataris and forty to fifty rupees from foreigners for work certificates.

At the outset, the unskilled laborers were Qataris and other gulf Arabs. They had frequent disagreements with the oil company's management, most of whom were non-Qataris, and some disagreements flared into strikes. Early strikes focused on wages, conditions, and benefits. In addition, the shaykh often encouraged strikes to pressure concessions from the oil company at the times he was negotiating new contracts.

During one strike in 1951, Qatari workers opposed those from Dhofar (in present-day Oman). To resolve the matter, the Dhofaris were deported (a solution to labor disputes that, along with imprisonment, continued to be used in the early 1990s). Shaykh Ali ibn Abd Allah freed the slaves in 1952 and paid 1,500 rupees each to 660 of them. A major strike in 1955 by Qatari workers induced the shaykh to form a Qatari riot squad to be used against them. In 1956 well-organized oil workers joined opposition forces in demonstrations against the regime and against the British. In response, the government inserted clauses in labor contracts banning political activity.

In 1959 a labor department was established to deal with oil workers. In 1962 a labor law was enacted that gave preference in hiring first to Qataris, then to other Arabs, and finally to other foreigners. Strict controls existed on foreign workers, whose visas stipulated that they must work for a specific Qatari sponsor at a specific job. In practice, there was some fluidity in employment. Trade unions were banned, but Qatari workers had workplace-based organizations, known as workers' committees, that dealt with grievances. The country's labor court was the first in the gulf. The government has sought to encourage Qataris to take jobs in the industrial work force (the process of "Qatarization"). In 1993, however, the majority of laborers and middle-level employees, were foreigners.

All foreign workers require sponsorship by a Qatari, some of whom illegally charge their employees high fees for renewing sponsorship. Other abuses include breach of contract and physical or sexual abuse.

Regulations govern safety in the workplace, but these are unevenly enforced. The labor force represents 42 percent of the population, with 7 percent of the force made up of women. Those women who work outside the home are often teachers, nurses, clerks, or domestic servants. In-service industries absorb 69 percent of the work force, industry 28 percent, and agriculture 3 percent.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress