Qatar’s Kafala challenge; When ‘changes’ are implemented, will anything change at all?
Over the last fortnight, Qatar has continuously been the focus of international news, little of which has been positive. Bribery allegations surrounding its successful FIFA 2022 bid, Taliban leaders being released to Qatar, and the continuing criticism of its labour laws.
With the last at least, Qatar had shown some progress, when it proposed ‘changes’ to its severely-criticised Kafala system on May 14. The changes announced were not significant enough, and is pending both the cabinet’s approval and the Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s blessings. But it was no doubt a move in the right direction, sticking closely to all the recommendations made by the law firm DLA Piper. The firm was entrusted with the task of looking into allegations of abuse of labour rights.
Even at that point, many rights activists were concerned that even those change didn’t go far enough, that it might just be a new name for old, exploitative practices.
However, a recent announcement by the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Dr Abdullah bin Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi, provides more cause for concern.
Speaking at the recent International Labour Conference in Geneva, he said that changes would be implemented soon, and that both the ‘NOC’ and Exit Permits would be decided in the contract the worker signs. This in effect means, nothing changes from the current Kafala or sponsorship system.
The table below illustrates how little might actually change, even if the changes on the three main issues (sponsorship, NOC, exit permits) are approved by both the cabinet and QCCI.
|Current System||Current Challenges||Proposed Changes||New Challenges|
|Kafala system (sponsorship system), whereby an employee is tied to his employer (company or individual).||
This gives the employer almost unlimited power over his/her employee. Those who fall in the low-income, unskilled group, and domestic workers categories are most vulnerable
|Kafala or sponsorship system will be ‘replaced’ with a system based on employment contracts.||From the limited information that was shared, it appears that little may change.For the period of the work contract that could be anywhere between one to five years, the employers will continue to have complete control over their foreign employees, not so dissimilar from the current kafala system.|
|‘NOC’ or No Objection Certificate. As per law, an individual can switch jobs only if an individual employer chooses to give a ‘release’ or ‘NOC’, but is not required to do so by law.||Even if the contract is violated by way of non-payment of wages or other kinds of abuse, the employee cannot change jobs unless the employer deigns to provide an ‘NOC’.||NOC (No Objection Certificate) will be replaced by an employment contract, and employees can change jobs at the end of contract. If contract is for indefinite period, then after 5 years. A new model contract will be shared with companies soon, that includes new terms and conditions.||However, the Minister’s recent statement seems to be at odds with what was proposed last month.(See below)|
|Exit Permit.No expatriate (except wives, daughters and minor sons sponsored by the husband) can leave the country without the sponsor’s permission.||This violates the most rudimentary human rights, where freedom of mobility, is curtailed.||Exit permits through automated system (Metrash 2) and doesn’t require employer’s approval.The exit permit will be issued by the Ministry of Interior and not by the employer. However, there will be a 72-hour wait period for employer to raise any objections he/she might have.||The exit permit stays. Only the issuing authority changes.Moreover, the Minister of Social and Labour Affairs, however, said in Geneva:“The contract will decide whether a worker needs exit permit or not to leave the country. And whether he gets no-objection certificate to take up another job at the end of the contract would also be decided by this contract.”|
After last month’s announcement, Amnesty’s James Lynch had said: “The government claims it is abolishing the sponsorship system, but this sounds like a change of name rather than substantive reform. In particular, it remains unclear how proposed reforms to the exit permit will work in practice, and whether under the new proposal employers will retain the ability to object to workers leaving the country.”
But after the Minister’s statement in Geneva, Lynch feels that those proposed Qatari labour reforms may be even less significant than first thought.
Without a question labour law reforms are closely linked to Qatar’s desire to hold the World Cup, but its needs for the large labour force does not hinge on football alone. There is infrastructure to be developed, a country to be built. This is a great opportunity for Qatar to prove its detractors wrong, and do the correct thing. After all, the rights (and dreams) of a million plus low-income workers depends on it.