End of Kafala? All eyes on Qatar as govt set to announce amendment to labour law tomorrow
Qatar is expected to announce the long-awaited amendments to its labour law tomorrow.
The Ministry of Interior will be making the announcement to media tomorrow at 3 pm, local time. (While the communication in English says Labour Law Amendment, the Arabic communication says ‘Condition of Workers’.)
Since 2010, when it won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, its treatment of migrant workers has been under severe scrutiny.
About 90 percent of the over two million population are expatriates, and close to 1.3 million are from Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Most of these residents are low-income expatriates (‘migrant workers’) who bear the brunt of the kafala system.
Doha-based rights activist Aakash Jayaprakash says it is crucial that the changes made are accompanied by equally effective implementation tools. “Often the challenges are about enforcement of the current laws more than the law itself. If what we have been hearing is true, and the exit permit is changed to allow those without doubt or criminal charges to leave the country at will, it would be a great positive step.”
Pressure from across the world
At the ongoing Global Forum on Migration Development Civil Society Days meeting in Stockholm, the state of migrant workers in Qatar was an oft-raised concern. Civil society organisations while highlighting the lack of regulation in countries of origin, also spoke of the complete lack of protection for migrants in destination countries, especially in the GCC.
At the Universal Periodic Review of Qatar on May 7, the UN Member States had also called on Qatar to reform its labour laws and protect its migrant workers.
Some of the main criticisms against Qatar’s labour system, and the corresponding suggestions for improvement, are:
- Abolition of the exit permit system.
- Abolition of the ‘NOC’ system, and allowing workers to move jobs.
- Allow freedom of association and collective bargaining.
- Improve the labour inspection practices.
- Strict implementation of current laws.
- Clamp down on contract substation and unethical recruitment practices that result in debt bondage of workers.
The Amnesty report ‘The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup’ released last November made these key recommendations:
- Ensure that all workers – including but not only domestic workers – have their labour rights protected by law, equally; and
- Amend Article 116.1 so that workers in enterprises with less than 100 workers of any nationality employed are able to form or join a union;
- Adopt provisions that extend to all workers the right to bargain collectively, consistent
- Increase the monitoring of the arrival of workers in Qatar, so that when workers arrive their contract is checked by government officials in the presence of their employer and the worker, to confirm that the terms and conditions are what the worker has been promised prior to leaving his or her home country;
- Significantly increase the number of competent Labour inspectors as a matter of urgency, ensuring that either a significant proportion of Labour inspectors are able to speak the languages used by workers or are accompanied by competent translators;
- Consider making public the grades awarded to employers for compliance with labour standards, and the criteria upon which they are judged, providing independent oversight for this system.
Amnesty International’s researcher on migrant rights in the GCC, James Lynch says:
“We obviously hope to hear of plans for fundamental reform, to the sponsorship law most obviously, including the exit permit – which we believe should be abolished. This is an opportunity for the government to show that it is really serious about addressing the abuses that have brought Qatar such scrutiny and criticism in recent months.”
The resistance from businesses to providing ‘NOC’ is often rationalised by the employer by saying they have invested in recruitment.
Jayaprakash points out: “The main challenge to this point lies in the recruitment system, where both employers and employees have invested heavily in it. If Qatar is able to ensure that there is a clean recruitment process before a foreign worker begins working in Qatar it would be beneficial to both employer and employee. Perhaps an online portal where the Ministry of Labour can post all job openings in Qatar, based on need and skill level, and individuals can apply directly? Also, the reforms should include all those who are not part of the current laws. Domestic workers are very vulnerable and the most exploited group; They should ensure that security guards and cleaners are no longer outside of work hour limitations. There is much to do, but I hope that an effective enforcement and punitive measure system is also announced.”
A slow journey towards labour reforms
In the last quarter of 2013 the media glare on Qatar got harsher, and the government commissioned DLA Piper law firm to look into allegations of labour abuse and present its findings and recommendations.
In February the the Qatar 2022 worker’s welfare standards was released by the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, but it was seen as a limited intervention that doesn’t benefit all workers.
These standards addressed some of the issues:
• Contractors are to set up bank accounts for their workers, which will help facilitate payment, creating an auditable transaction system that will help the Supreme Committee verify that all workers are being paid in full and on time.
• Accommodations: Comprehensive specifications for worker accommodations, setting clear guidelines for everything from the number of beds per room to a minimum standard for cleanliness and hygiene.
• Independent third-party auditors will be involved in a 4-tier audit system to enforce the standards. Progress reports based on the audits are to be made public in order to track progress and share lessons learnt with government stakeholders and the international community.
A few weeks ago, the Wage Protection System was also announced.
Photo Courtesy: Yan on Flickr