Baby steps towards reform for workers in Qatar

Baby steps towards reform for workers in Qatar
7 min read
10 Sep, 2015
Comment: Since winning the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the international spotlight has shone on Qatar's promises to improve its treatment of foreign workers, writes Akram Belkaid.
Qatar has faced fierce criticism by international human rights organisations over its labour laws [Getty]

Reform: will they or won't they?

Qatar frequently finds itself in the hot seat over the living and working conditions of its 1.8 million foreign workers, roughly 250,000 of whom are directly involved in the construction for the 2022 World Cup.

Officially, the country's authorities attest to having taken note of even the harshest of criticisms, and their intention to improve the state of affairs. But the biggest and most awaited reform concerns the "kafala" system, which subjects foreign workers to the will of their employer.

In Qatar and other Gulf countries, "kafala" refers to the legal system by which a migrant labourer is sponsored by a Qatari national or employer.

It is a form of sponsorship whereby the employer is the migrant labourer's guarantor before the local authorities. For the migrant, this guardianship brings several obligations and dependencies, fiercely criticised by international human rights organisations.

The employer often has possession of his employee's passport and has the right to monitor any trips abroad. In order to go home, whether he is a labourer, football coach or university professor, the foreign national needs an exit visa that can only be obtained with the employer's backing.

This employer can also oppose the migrant worker changing jobs - and as a result, guarantor - and can withdraw the kafala at any time, making him into an "illegal" undocumented migrant. At the end of the work contract, the employer can also stop the worker leaving the country.

In the UAE, the existence of free trade zone exempts migrants from obtaining sponsorship. Elsewhere, the term kafala originally refers to an adoption procedure specific to Muslim law. It establishes guardianship without affiliation meaning the adopted child does not have the same rights as "legitimate" children.

When questioned by Orient XXI, Abdallah Saleh Mubarak al-Khulaifi, the Qatari minister of labour and social affairs, reiterated that his country was "on its way to modernising labour legislation and permits for foreign workers".

"It is a directive and a commitment made by our emir," he said. "There will be a new legislative framework consistent with Qatar's transformation."

     Doha points to a law that is designed to guarantee not only will migrant worker be paid, but paid on time

As proof, Doha points to a law that is designed to guarantee not only will migrant worker be paid, but paid on time.

Finalised in February 2015 and approved by the emir, the text sets out a Wage Protection System (WPS) that will contribute to eliminating the late payments endured by many among the foreign workforce.

According to statistics regularly published by the press in the Gulf, more than one fifth of foreign workers employed in Qatar are subject to late payments and arbitrary deductions by their employers.

"The WPS will enable us to resolve 70 percent of the problems migrant workers face," said Khulaifi.

In practice, the law stipulates that companies which do not meet their obligations will be liable for a fine, that they will be banned from recruiting and that their managers may even face prison.

Passive resistance

Although Amnesty International, which has showed much commitment to this cause, welcomed "a step in the right direction", scepticism remains the order of the day. Initially planned for last February, and postponed until 18 August, the implementation of the WPS has, according to local press, once again been put back until November.

Officially, this is to allow companies extra time to conform to the legislation that imposes, among other things, the payment of salaries through online banking systems.

But for the country's detractors, this most recent postponement is proof that the state has little desire to move things forward. However, one western diplomat posted to Doha who wished to remain anonymous disagrees.

"In the West we have no idea how much is required to affect change here. There are more than 50,000 companies in this country, many of which were used to paying their foreign workers cash in hand.

"The workers would then wire part of their earnings using money transfer companies. All of a sudden, each employee needs a bank account and the company in question must consent to investing in managing salaries electronically. The level of resistance and inertia is phenomenal."

Reinforcing state control

In mid-August, Amnesty International and other non-governmental organisations warned Doha against any delays to the WPS and had raised concerns about the concrete effectiveness of this system, given the lack of human resources for ensuring conditions are met.

"We are going to increase the number of labour inspectors from 294 to 400," the minister of labour responded.

"They will be trained and accredited by the Ministry for Justice and will be involved in both questions linked to salaries as well as working conditions on construction sites."

One British expat, advising the Qatari government over the implementation of reforms, highlighted the limits of the administrative government machinery. "Qatar, like other Gulf countries, was built on the Anglo-Saxon idea of minimum state involvement, where the economy is concerned.

     It is a question of reinforcing an administration that... will be capable of applying the law. This will not happen overnight

"Now it is a question of reinforcing an administration that, without creating bureaucracy, will be capable of effectively applying the law. This will not happen overnight. Training will be necessary. That means young Qataris who are entering the public sector don't do so just to have a salary, in the absence of anything better."

Questioning kafala

Either way, the implementation of the WPS in November, even if it does come about, will not be enough to silence every critic. Questions over the kafala system remain in the air - even FIFA is asking for its reform.

This system of sponsorship for all foreign workers is criticised for being open to abuse. A migrant worker can, for example, have his passport confiscated by his employer, and the employer's permission is required for him to change jobs or leave the country.

A bill is currently under discussion with the government and the Majlis al-Shura, the Consulative Assembly.

Without completely repealing kafala, it stipulates several improvements, including making it illegal to confiscate passports and giving foreigners the right to leave Qatar after 72 hours in the absence of any formal opposition from their employer - at present, migrant workers and expats alike cannot leave the country without the permission of their employer.

Similarly, a migrant worker will be able to change employers at the end of his contract, which should reduce the number of cases in which the migrant has no choice other than to remain in Qatar illegally.

For those familiar with the situation of migrant workers in Qatar but also in other Gulf countries - which, curiously, have been largely spared the criticism of the international community on these subjects - the progress is undeniable, especially as the emirate, unlike its neighbours, has opened its doors to international humanitarian and trade union organisations.

Even so, it is clear that their presence will not be enough to satisfy those in favour of an outright abolition of the kafala. And indeed, they may well point out that reform of the system, which was promised for 2015, is proving slow to translate into action.

"We understand the impatience but it is important we take things at our pace," insists Abdallah Salah Mubarak al-Khulaifi. "Economic growth in Qatar is high, generating significant needs for our economic operators," he added. 

"We are obliged to constantly adapt while improving the conditions in which migrant workers are received, especially as we are expecting record numbers in 2016-2018. Our laws are undergoing changes and we will do our best to ensure that these workers are informed, on arrival or before leaving home, of their rights."

In November, all eyes will once again fall on Qatar, in the hope of seeing an effective implementation of the Wage Protection System while waiting for essential reforms to the kafala system to take place.

A version of this article was first published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expresed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.