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International Workers Day: Qatari officials acknowledge problems, but no significant change to laws announced

Sukanya Seshadri

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Though no substantial changes to the law were announced, officials speaking at the Conference On Labor Rights Protection on International Labor Day acknowledged that there was a problem, and that the laws can be changed.

In the last week, media reports indicated that there might be significant changes to the kafala system, and in particular the exit permit and that the announcement would coincide with May Day.

Minister of Labour & Social Affairs, HE Dr. Abdullah Al-Khulaifi who gave the inaugural address at the conference, said the Ministry of Labour was ethically committed to migrant workers and recognised their role in the society in Qatar. He referred to expatriate workers as “partners in development in Qatar”.

Dr. Al-Khulaifi mentioned that they want to enhance the labour-business relationship. As part of this initiative, he stated that procedures to implement a wage protection scheme, creating labour cities for more than 100,000 workers, increasing the number of inspectors, a new cooperation with the International Labor Organization were being completed.

The Qatari cabinet ordered amendments to the law, to implement the Wage Protection System, which will make it mandatory for all workers to be paid via bank transfer.

“10 Nepalese workers (…) stranded in Doha without their passports which their sponsor was in possession of and was missing from the picture.”
Government’s role in protecting labour rights

A panel consisting of officials from Ministry of Interior (MOI), the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MOLSA) and Amnesty International discussed how the government of Qatar ensures that the interests of migrant workers are protected within the country.

Amnesty International’s Global Issues representative Audrey Gaughran highlighted the various abuses that workers here are subjected to. A few of these include men not being paid for months and workers in debt in their home countries not being allowed to leave and kept unpaid, among others. She highlighted that governments cannot put in place laws, which constitute violations of workers rights. The sponsorship system or ‘kafala’ system in Qatar is what needs special attention.

She illustrated her points with the example of 10 Nepalese workers she encountered in Doha whom she found to reside in appalling conditions. They were stranded in Doha without their passports, which their sponsor was in possession of and was missing from the picture. They had not been issued Qatar ID cards by their employer, which made stepping out of their accommodation highly risky. They sought the help of officials at the MOI’s Search & Follow Up Department five times and during each visit, they were asked by the officials to return with their passports. “The certificate of the No-Objection Certificate (NOC) should not be in the hand of the employer as the employer should not get to decide whether people change jobs or not,” she added.

“We are not here to run after workers, to arrest and harass them. We are here to support democracy and the sovereignty of law.” – Colonel Abdullah Al-Mahanadi
Ministry efforts

The Ministry of Interior’s Director for Search & Follow Up Department, Brigadier Nasir Al-Sayed said that the MOI looks forward to accomplishing a balance in aspects of Society. The Ministry tries to resolve all cases that are brought to it and only refer them to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) if they need He cited Law No. 4 (2009), which regulates the entry and exit of labourers from Qatar. According to this law, the penalty for violating this law between 3 to 4 years of jail time or a QR50,000 fine or other penalties which vary according to the recurrence of such violations.

He mentioned that the MOI has referred 84 cases to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) for visa trafficking issues. About 138 verdicts were passed where the sponsorship of more than 100 employees was transferred to other companies due to violations. He also said that of nearly 2 million expatriate workers, only 600 cases are in detention at search and follow-up department.

He also mentioned that the Ministry was not opposed to changes in legislation and that they were willing to change according to the need of the country.

Moving away from the controversial ‘absconding’ term used by the Ministry, he said they were not “run away or absconding, but ‘uncontrolled’ workers.”

Some allowances that the MOI has in place for someone expelled from his or her job. If the person expelled has children in school in Qatar, then he is allowed to stay in the country until the end of the school year. Additionally, the wife of a person is allowed to visit him for 2 to 3 days per week for 2 hours.

Promise of Equality

Director of Human Rights Department at the MOI, Colonel Abdullah Al-Mahanadi clarifies that the Department of Human Rights’ aims are to place equality before law as it is enshrined in the Constitution of Qatar; to protect public interest, security and safety for all – citizens, visitors or residents; and finally for all people to have confidence in the department. “We are not here to run after workers, to arrest and harass them. We are here to support democracy and the sovereignty of law,” he concluded.

Saleh Al-Shawi from the MOLSA’s Labour Relations Department spoke of the supervisory role that the Inspection Department plays in protecting labourers’ rights whereby it carries out regular field visits, which are recorded. In 2012, he said, the Public Relations Department of the MOLSA documented 8,000 cases of which the Department resolved more than 6,000. Less than 2,000 cases were forwarded to the courts.

Despite these attempts and measures in place, migrant workers yet need a major overhaul to protect the interests of workers.

Policing the private sector

Speaking on the panel ‘How to enforce private sectors to adopt new standards to protect workers’, Amnesty’s James Lynch said, inspections in Qatar monitor only work sites and accommodations, which clearly isn’t enough.

“Checks and inspections are usually conducted at labour accommodation because they are tangible,” said Lynch. “But there are many other things that need inspection such as: payment of workers, quality of food, if they are handed their passport or exit permit.”

This was one of the four solutions he proposed to private sector companies to ensure labour standards were being met. Other solutions included:

  • During the qualification and tendering process, contractors need to demonstrate how they treat workers.
  • Sub-contractors must receive clear instructions from the top-management regarding the rights that employees are eligible for. Also, workers employed by sub-contractors must have the necessary information regarding their labour rights. It should be displayed clearly, in languages they understand. Handing them booklets are not helpful, as they tend to get lost.
  • Assisting workers to lodge complaints. Even something as simple as providing transport for workers to reach labour offices.

With reporting from Cassey Oliveira

[Photo courtesy: Aakash Jayaprakash]

 

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