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Qatar takes positive steps in reforming controversial labour laws

New labour rules in Qatar “effectively dismantles” the county’s much maligned “kafala” employment system, a U.N. labour body said Sunday 30 August 2020.

The changes mean that migrant workers – who have often found themselves trapped in exploitative contracts by their employer – can now change jobs before the end of their contracts without obtaining the permission of their current employers. The shift ends one of the most criticised elements of the country’s labour system if this new law is adhered to and supported in the courts.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) also announced Qatar has adopted a minimum monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals (£205) for workers. The minimum wage will come into effect six months after the law is published in the country’s official gazette.

Alongside the minimum wage, employers will be required to provide allowances for housing and food if not already provided for their workers.

Migrant workers in Qatar

Despite Qatar boasting one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world, owing to its natural gas reserves, there is significant income inequality. Few if any of the 2 million migrant workers in Qatar benefit from the country’s extreme wealth.

Many migrant workers were drawn to Qatar when the country won the 2022 World Cup bid in answer to the need for infrastructure workers to deliver on bid promises. Migrant workers now make up 95% of the country’s labour force.

As work on the World Cup infrastructure continued, multiple investigations have exposed workers’ going unpaid, being forced to work in unsafe conditions, having passports confiscated, and ultimately some 1,200 workers have died since 2010 according to the International Trades Union Confederation (ITUC).

One of the most controversial aspects of Qatar’s labour laws has been the exploitative “kafala” system which requires all unskilled labourers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.

The Qatari government partially ended the “kafala” system in 2018, having entered a partnership with the ILO to begin to reform its labour system in 2017. However, progress has been flawed and in some cases non-existent, according to Steve Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice for Amnesty International, who in June 2020 said:

“For years we have been urging Qatar to reform the system, but clearly change has not come fast enough. It shouldn’t take an Amnesty investigation for workers to be paid what they are owed.”

Watch investigative journalist and filmmaker Benjamin Best talk to IOHR about the plight of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar:

 

“Significant changes”

The changes mean an end to the ‘no-objection certificate’ which prevents migrant workers from changing jobs without the permission of their employer. Under the new law, workers will be able to leave their job by providing a one-month written notice if they have worked for the employer for less than two years, or a two month notice if they have worked for them for longer. The worker will not have to pay these costs, and the transfer request would be processed by the Ministry of Labour.

Unlike previous reforms, some of which were more ‘symbolic’ rather than consequential, the ability for workers to change jobs without needing to obtain their employers’ permission is likely to have a lasting effect on workers’ rights in Qatar. The fact that employers were effectively tied to their employer fostered the conditions for other forms of exploitation.

Guy Ryder, the director general of the ILO, said:

“By introducing these significant changes, Qatar has delivered on a commitment, one that will give workers more freedom and protection, and employers more choice.”

Yousuf Mohamed Al Othman Fakhroo, the minister of administrative development, labour and social affairs said:

“These new laws mark a major milestone … and will benefit workers, employers and the nation alike.”

FIFA, world football’s governing body, have previously been condemned for not doing enough to call out Qatar’s human rights abuses. However, FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino expressed his joy at the announcement, releasing a statement on Tuesday (1 September 2020) that said:

“We sincerely congratulate the State of Qatar on this significant step,”

More to be done?

Humanitarian groups have almost universally applauded Qatar for taking this positive step, but congratulations have also been caveated with a sense of caution.

For these reforms to create meaningful change they will have to be rigorously monitored and enforced. Many have also criticised the new minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals a month for being too low. This will only amount to around £1 an hour for some workers.

Speaking to the Guardian, Chudamani Sapkota, a migrant worker in Qatar, explained how costs in Qatar had skyrocketed in recent years, saying:

“It costs 400 riyals a month just for food these days, even if you are sharing a kitchen with colleagues or eating in a canteen. So it’s very hard for workers on a low salary,”

Mr. Cockburn of Amnesty said of the new laws:

“These reforms are a positive development, but the Qatari authorities have much more work to do to end the systematic abuse of migrant workers. With these new laws in place, we call on Qatar to implement strong inspection and complaints mechanisms to allow workers who have been victims of human rights abuses to swiftly access justice and remedy.”

While all progress is welcome, the Qatari government should not become complacent and other crucial reforms should be enacted to improve workers’ rights, for example: Employers still can file criminal charges against “absconding” employees, meaning those who left their jobs without permission; Hundreds of workers continue to die each year of unknown causes, with no political will to research these deaths; Trade unions remain outlawed and the majority of low-wage workers continue to pay illegal recruitment fees to secure their jobs, leaving many in debt bondage.

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