Portugal accused of treating embassy staff in Qatar “just like other immigrant workers”
The exterior of the Portuguese embassy in Doha looks like a beautiful place of work, but it transpires staff members there have almost no basic rights. Image: Facebook

Portugal accused of treating embassy staff in Qatar “just like other immigrant workers”

No entitlement to social security benefits, pensions or even basic healthcare

Ready for a six week strike from December 5, the syndicate representing workers in Portuguese consulates and embassies around the world has highlighted just how bad conditions can be for them.

In Qatar, for example – where focus today is on the lack of basic human rights for immigrant workers in particular – the three workers assigned to the Portuguese embassy “are exploited, have no health insurance and no pension rights”.

Says Alexandre Vieira, secretary general of the union of consular workers, diplomatic missions and central services of the ministry of foreign affairs: “It is inadmissible for a country like Portugal – a member of the European Union” to employ people under such conditions. 

Yet without the focus on Qatar’s human rights abuses, we might never have known this goes on in plain sight.

According to Vieira, two extra members of staff have been drafted into the Doha embassy from Denmark and Moscow for the duration of the World Cup – thus there are currently five Portuguese consular employees at work, all of them ‘being exploited’.

Due to the strike, all five will be unable to help any nationals who might find themselves in need of consular assistance between December 5 and January 12 next year, he added.

“In Qatar there is no social security”, he told Lusa. “In Qatar, as in the Emirates and other rich countries, social security is private. If you want health insurance you have to take out health insurance; if you want a pension, you have to pay into a plan; if you want accident insurance, you have to take it out yourself. If you don’t have the money to pay, you die…” 

The situation of members of staff at the ministry of foreign affairs in Qatar “is identical” to that of immigrant workers in the country who have no rights, and whose situation has been the cause of so many complaints and accusations against the state of Qatar in recent weeks and days, he said.

“The only problem is that they are working for the Portuguese State which should give them with these rights as a member of the European Union”.

The union leader outlined a recent situation with an embassy staff member who wanted to start a family: she ended up having to leave the job “as she did not have maternity insurance, or the means to pay for private hospital treatment…” 

“In Qatar, if you arrive at a hospital with a broken leg, because you have fallen, but you do not have health insurance, they send you away, to die anywhere”, Vieira concluded.

This surprising cameo comes the day before parliament is due to ‘approve’ President Marcelo’s trip to Qatar, to attend the Portugal game on Thursday, in the company of prime minister António Costa and leader of the House Augusto Santos Silva.

All the men have insisted that their presence in Qatar is to ‘show support for the national team’, and can not be taken as reflection of their feelings towards human rights abuses. But the line is not being swallowed by very many: television commentator Luís Marques Mendes pointed out in his regular slot on SIC last night that “millions of Portuguese will be supporting the national team without going to Qatar” . It would be much better for heads of state and those in power to give “a clear sign of condemnation” by staying away from the World Cup, he told news anchor Clara de Sousa.

Today, Alexandra Leitão, former Socialist minister for the modernisation of public administration, has backed Marques Mendes’ position, saying “Portugal should not be represented at the highest level” at the World Cup – essentially because in doing so the country appears to be showing respect to a nation that is “autocratic, xenophobic and homophobic”.

Various political parties and figures have also spoken out against the reasons given by Portugal’s top political figures for travelling to Qatar.

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com