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Human Rights Watch: Qatar’s new reforms won’t protect migrant workers; still tied to employers under kafala system

Human Rights Watch: Qatar’s new reforms won’t protect migrant workers; still tied to employers under kafala system

Qatar’s failure to enact meaningful reforms for its kafala (sponsorship) system leaves hundreds of thousands of low-paid migrant workers at serious risk of forced labor and other abuses, Human Rights Watch has said. Reforms announced on October 27, 2015, still require low-paid migrant workers to get their employer’s permission to change jobs or to leave the country, a system that prevents workers from leaving abusive employers.

The new sponsorship law, law no. 21 of 2015, refers to “recruiters” instead of “sponsors” but it leaves the fundamentally exploitative characteristics of the kafala system in place. The serious mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar has been the focus of international criticism since it won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. These reforms to its kafala system, which will enter into force in one year, fall short even of the largely insubstantial pledges Qatar made in May 2014.

“The message this law sends is that Qatar doesn’t really care much about migrant workers,” said Joe Stork deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Its sponsorship system remains a serious stain on Qatar’s international reputation.”

Fewer than 10 percent of the 2.1 million people in Qatar are Qatari nationals. Migrant workers, predominantly from South Asia, occupy all the positions in low-paid sectors such as construction and domestic service.

A 2012 Human Rights Watch report described pervasive employer abuse and exploitation in Qatar’s construction industry. Numerous other reports and international media articles have documented the gravity and extent of the abuse of migrant workers in all jobs, including domestic service.

A key element in Qatar’s exploitative labor system is the kafala system, which ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to the employer or sponsor. The new law leaves in place a requirement for any foreign workers to obtain a “No Objection Certificate” from their current employer if they want to transfer legally to another employer. The workers also must obtain exit permits from their employers to leave Qatar. The requirements enable employers to arbitrarily prevent their employees from leaving Qatar to return to their home country or from escaping an abusive work situation. International human rights law applicable in Qatar requires the Qatari authorities to respect everyone’s right to leave any country.

The new law leaves in place a requirement for any foreign workers to obtain a “No Objection Certificate” from their current employer if they want to transfer legally to another employer.

Article 21 of the new law states that workers who want to change employers before the end of their contracts will need the permission of their employer, “the competent authority,” as well as the Interior, and Labor and Social Affairs Ministries. The law does not define who “the competent authority” is. Workers who wish to change employers at the end of their contract will also need the permission of “the competent authority” and the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. If the length of the contract is not defined, workers must wait five years to leave an employer.

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