And After the Fire, the Living Suffer

English: An image depicting the grand canal in...
English: An image depicting the grand canal inside Villagio, Doha. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Entrance number 3 of Villagio Mall, Doha.
English: Entrance number 3 of Villagio Mall, Doha. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two weeks ago, life in Qatar changed when a mall fire killed 19 people, among them children, teachers, and firefighters. Our hearts immediately went out to the loved ones who were grappling with mundane tasks in the wake of such devastating loss. The fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, of those who lost someone were immediately surrounded with candle light vigils and prayers.

As the mother of a toddler, in light of high cost of lives in such a tragedy, I found myself comforted when I drove by the mall parking lot, normally a hive of overactivity, uncharacteristically vacant.

Who could shop there again unaware of the way negligence and unpreparedness put lives in danger?

“Lots of people. People who need their brands before they travel,” one student said as we discussed in class people’s intentions about going to Villaggio again. The comment brought me up short.

I didn’t berate her — I listened to her point of view. A few hours later, something in me still balked at the thought of rank commercialism in a site with such bad karma. I did what I normally do when I’m contemplating something. I took the issue to Twitter.

“Would you go to Villaggio again? I hope to never go again,” I tweeted, avoiding the word never, because, well, you never know.

The responses that came back were even more eye opening than my student’s frankness.

“Please think of the workers and their families who haven’t been paid since the mall’s closure,” someone tweeted back. “Yes, there are cleaners that are very worried,” someone else replied.

With their insights, the empty parking lot took on another significance, this one with consequences for the living: no wages, nothing to send home to their families, many dependent on their incomes. I couldn’t believe this entire group of people were paying for an unprecedented mistake, the kind the country had never seen before. Curious to know more, I spoke with mall employees. Here’s what I was able to find out:

The closure’s effect on salespeople depends on the company they work for. If you work for an international chain or brand, like Azadea ( who owns Virgin, Paul, Massimo Dutti, Oculis, among others) then you can go on leave. However its on a basic salary with no commission ( commission payments  can be up to half of someone’s pay check).  Other big groups operating in Villaggio like Al Shaya (who oversee Starbucks , Boots etc ) have a similar leave setup for employees. These chains have more than one outlet, and others, like department stores, are able to reassign employees to other locations at other shopping outlets.

If you have one store in Villaggio and you are reliant on it for all your income, the situation becomes more dire. A small company can little afford even one month of no trading. Three months or more (rumors are that Villaggio will be closed for 6 months) which will surely kill the cash flow and thus the business.

For employees working for the small companies, they are unpaid leave. Unpaid leave and the sponsor system means many are now unemployed. The refusal of  companies to issue an No Objection Letter (required in Qatar to transfer sponsor) for their staff to seek other employment means that some staff are doomed. Another problem with unpaid leave is that companies can also refuse to issue plane tickets for staff to leave the country. If you consider the average cost of a return ticket is QAR 4000. Unless you have saved that money you have few options but to wait and see what your fate will be.

Like the aftermath of any tragedy the questions are complex and multi-faceted.

What would you do if Villaggio were reopened?

What can we as a community do for those affected by the closure?

Since smoking in doors continues, is it only time before another incident happens at another location?

Tell me what you’re thinking: The good, the bad, the unspoken. Only through honesty can we make our way through. This is the least we can do to honor the memory of the dead.


                                           A Mother’s Tale the Morning of the Fire