Migrant workers celebrate landmark Qatari labour reform

Ending kafala: Migrant workers celebrate as Qatar scraps 'exit permits' in landmark labour reform
3 min read
05 September, 2018
Foreign workers will now be allowed to leave the country without requiring their employer's permission.
Foreign workers will be allowed to leave the country without requiring their employer's permission [Getty]
Migrant workers helping build eight stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be able to leave the country without exit visas from their employers, it has been announced.

The move is the first step by the Doha government to ending the often-criticised kafala system under which 1.5million construction workers face being trapped in the country because their bosses won't give them the necessary paperwork to go home.

In all, there are more than 20 million migrants, mainly from South Asia, working across the Middle East under the kafala system in both construction and domestic labour.

The tiny Gulf state of Qatar has previously been criticised for its treatment of migrant workers as it prepares to host the World Cup, with kafala being singled out as a system that allows unscrupulous bosses to keep workers in servitude.

But the 2022 tournament is being presented as a catalyst for change; a showcase of Qatar's progress and development.
Qatar's World Cup legacy can be the transformation of its labour system from one that drives exploitation to one that provides an example for the region


Amnesty International also praised the move.

"Qatar's World Cup legacy can be the transformation of its labour system from one that drives exploitation to one that provides an example for the region," said Amnesty's Stephen Cockburn. "There remains a huge amount to do, and fully abolishing the exit permit should be one step among many in achieving that."

In an agreement with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Doha government pledged at the beginning of the year to introduce sweeping reforms to improve workers' conditions.

In March, the authorities announced they would be paying back the recruitment fees for 30,000 migrant workers by the end of 2019 as part of a £3.6m ($5m) payout.

The money is paid by workers in their home countries to contractors who find them work abroad. But payments were only reimbursed if the worker could produce receipts, which rarely happened.
Today marks a huge step for workers' rights and the end of the kafala system for migrant workers in Qatar


Yesterday the ILO hailed the move allowing migrant workers to leave Qatar without permits from their employers as a "huge step".

"Today marks a huge step for workers' rights and the end of the kafala system for migrant workers in Qatar," said Sharan Burrow, general-secretary of the ITUC.

"An estimated 1.5million workers will now have the freedom to leave Qatar without their employer's permission and this eliminates a central part of the kafala system of modern slavery which is still in place in other Gulf countries."

Qatar's system still requires the country's 1.6million mainly Asian foreign workers to get employers' consent when changing jobs, and the ITUC said Qatar would still need to abolish exit permits for the approximately 174,000 domestic workers so they enjoy the same freedoms.

The ILO is working on a three-year programme on working conditions and labour rights for migrant workers.

"This first step towards full suppression of exit permits is a clear sign of commitment by the government of Qatar to labour reforms and a key milestone in the process," said Houtan Homayounpour, head of the ILO office in Doha. "The ILO will continue to work closely with the government of Qatar on these reforms."

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.