Rights groups have been pressing for more reform to address migrant workers’ rights as the country gears to host the World Cup next year.
Global rights organisation Amnesty International has renewed its calls to protect migrant workers from “abusive practices” in Qatar, urging the Gulf state to further implement labour reforms to tackle the ongoing issue, according to a new report released on Tuesday.
Titled “Reality Check 2021”, the report claims that “old abusive practices resurfaced” in Qatar despite its wave of labour reforms, which have notably included the dismantling of the controversial kafala sponsorship system.
Although such moves have been praised on a global level, including by the International Labour Organization which has set up a base to oversee conditions in Qatar, Amnesty said authorities in Doha have failed to rigorously implement the reforms – pointing to a lack of monitoring, enforcement and holding employees to account.
This, it suggested, casts doubts over Qatar’s pledges to ensure the protection of migrant workers as it prepares to host the World Cup next year.
“For every day that this persists, workers across the country are left at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, facing wage theft, unsafe working conditions and sometimes insurmountable barriers to changing jobs,” read part of the report.
Amnesty’s researchers interviewed 45 current and former workers remotely or in person between April and November this year, all of whom shared their testimonies on alleged abuse they suffered at their workplaces. The respondents say their employers used legal loopholes to continue to infringe their rights despite the newly-introduced reforms.
The report comes a year ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which has accelerated and amplified calls to monitor Qatar’s progress to address labour rights as more western media outlets hone in on the issue.
Responding to the latest report, authorities in Qatar claim it failed to include the stories of the 242,870 workers that managed to freely change their jobs since they were no longer required to obtain a No-Objection Certificate [NOC] in order to change their workplace.
Despite the change in a rule requiring a certificate to change jobs, the report claims that a de facto NOC process has emerged while employers continue to have the ability to control their workers’ legal status.
A statement said the report had also failed to acknowledge Qatar’s new Wage Protection System which has managed to protect more than 96% of eligible workers from wage abuse as “new visa centres in labour-sending countries have significantly reduced exploitative practices before workers arrive” in the country.
“Qatar has never shied away from acknowledging that its labour system is still a work in progress. The government is committed to engaging collaboratively and constructively with international partners and critics to further improve standards for all migrant workers in Qatar,” read the statement from the Government Communications Office [GCO].
Furthermore, the Gulf state said that statements of more than 400,000 workers who benefitted from the minimum wage law were also not mentioned. “Hundreds of thousands” of employees were able to leave the country and return without permission since the removal of exit permits in 2018, it added.
However, Amnesty’s report said domestic workers still needed to inform their employer in person 72 hours prior their departure from the country. It also pointed towards a loophole in the system that enables employers to request that some 5% of their workforce requires an exit permit.
“As of August 2020, MADLSA [labour ministry] had approved 42,171 requests to retain exit permit permission for migrant workers. Figures for 2021 were not available at the time of writing,” said the report.
The rights group added that representatives of embassies in Qatar said that while leaving the country has become easier, some migrant workers continued to struggle to do so as their employers refused to pay for their tickets, pointing to some who also went further by filing legal reports claiming the employees were escaping from their job.
Passport confiscation also appeared to be a continuous violation, in addition to the failure to renew residency permits.
Shura council decisions
The Amnesty report also shed light on previously proposed decisions that it said would take Qatar back to square one. These include recommendations by the previous, unelected Shura Council in February that suggested removing the workers’ rights to freely change jobs during their contract; limiting the number of times they can change their jobs during their stay in Qatar to three and placing a limit on the number of employees that can change their jobs in a single company.
“These recommendations have not passed into law, however they give a strong indication of the local resistance to change in particular from the business community,” said Amnesty.
Since then, Qatar has inaugurated its newly-elected Shura Council after holding its first ever legislative election in October and has appointed Dr. Ali bin Saeed bin Smaikh Al Marri as the new labour ministry.
The two major moves, and especially the appointment of the former chairman of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee [NHRC], Al Marri, has raised hopes for further serious reform nationwide.
As part of the report, Amnesty has called on Qatar to ramp up its protection of migrant workers ahead of the long-anticipated World Cup and ensure loopholes within the system are covered to avoid such abuse.
According to numbers provided by the GCO, 35,280 accommodation and worksite inspections were carried out in the first half of this year alone, which saw the issuance of 13,724 penalties to companies deemed to be in violation of Qatar’s labour laws.
This also led to “worksite closures, fines and prison sentences”, while an additional 4,840 visits were made to raise awareness on reforms among both employers and employees.
“Systemic reform is a long-term process and shifting the behaviour of every company takes time. Through its actions, the government is sending a strong message to companies that violations will not be tolerated,” said the GCO.
Among the positive developments Qatar has made since winning the bid to host the World Cup was becoming the only country in the region to host the International Labour Organization’s [ILO] office, a move that is seen as proof of Doha’s commitment to addressing concerns raised over rights abuses.
The GCO stressed that Doha will continue its consultations with experts, the ILO and trade unions, highlighting the fact that labour reform is a complex task.
“The reality is that no other country has come so far in such a short amount of time. Following Qatar’s lead, and as a sign of the programme’s wider impact, other countries in the region have now taken steps to introduce their own labour reforms,” added the GCO.