After months of promises of “wide-ranging labor reforms” by senior government officials, yesterday’s proposed changes to Qatar’s employment laws came as a disappointment to many residents and human rights activists.
Thousands of people weighed in on the reform ideas in the hours after yesterday’s announcement. Key pledges from officials included allowing fixed-term employees to freely change jobs upon completing their contract, and giving the Ministry of Interior – rather than employers and sponsors – the authority to grant exit permits.
That fell short of many residents’ expectations:
Nice summary: Kafala lives on, no end to exit visa, no freedom of association, no minimum wages, no timeline about implementation #qatarlaw
— Kiran Garimella (@gvrkiran) May 14, 2014
At issue for many was the promised removal of no-objection certificates, which foreign workers are currently required to obtain from their employers before taking a new job.
Without an NOC, expats must leave Qatar for at least two years before being allowed to work for a different employer.
While fixed-term workers will be able to change jobs more easily under the proposed reforms, those on indefinite contracts would have to wait at least five years before changing jobs without their employer’s permission.
The change has prompted concern among some that companies would simply cease offering limited-duration job contracts.
And on Facebook, Haji T. Mammadov said:
“It’ll just force all employers to hire on indefinite in order not to give NOCs, which basically means that employees coming to work in Qatar will be forced to stick around with one employer for 5 years.”
Others suggested that the proposed changes will actually make it more difficult for some to change jobs.
In a comment left on Doha News, user Bornrich said:
“At the company I work for we have a rolling contract, as I imagine many professionals in Qatar do. The announcement has in effect clarified that employees are now locked into a 5 year tenure with their employer. Prior to the announcement an NOC was negotiable between the employer and employee.
And indeed, I have first hand knowledge of colleagues who successfully negotiated an NOC after as little as 1-2 years of service, often achieved through foregoing accrued holiday payouts or flights or staying on an extra month (or two). Now the employer can legitimately hold the employee for 5 years without issuing an NOC.”
There was also confusion over what happens if an expat signs an open-ended contract and quits or is fire after less than five years, and whether that person could pursue a new job in Qatar.
Questions are also being raised over how the Ministry of Interior will operate the new exit permit regime. Under the proposed changes, expats would file an application using the government’s Metrash 2 system at least 72 hours prior to departure (emergency travel requests will be handled separately).
Employers would be notified of the request and could lodge an objection to their employee’s travel plans. Those objections would then be heard by a government committee.
That proposal would theoretically make it more difficult for the employer to stop an expat from leaving the country. But some say it doesn’t go far enough:
And on Doha News, commenter Humza Ahmad said:
“Any employee putting application on MOI system without notifying will be stopped by employer stating he have important piece of work to do, which will make this thing go to arbitration and meaning the employee cannot leave on time. Worse, we are talking about layman labour to file online exit permit request. Good luck with that – they don’t have computers.”
Additionally, the grounds under which an expat could be denied an exit permit remain in question, noted Amnesty International researcher James Lynch in a statement:
“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.”
Amnesty – which published a 169-page report in November detailing abuses in Qatar’s construction sector – called Wednesday’s announcement “a missed opportunity” to address the “systemic” mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar.
“The government claims it is abolishing the sponsorship system, but this sounds like a change of name rather than substantive reform,” Lynch added.
Timeline for approval
Wednesday’s press conference was unique in that government officials announced their proposal at an early stage of the legislative process, and took questions from journalists. Generally, the public often learns of pending laws or amendments from a paragraph or two released by the state-run Qatar News Agency following Cabinet approval.
Nevertheless, no firm timeline was given for these proposals, which still need to be circulated to the country’s Chamber of Commerce and be approved by the Advisory (Shura) Council. This has upset some residents:
An on Facebook, Jean-Claude Chidiac said:
“(Nothing) has changed. All these nicely said new laws still to be approved by Ministry of Commerce and Shura. And this might take another 10 years.”
Although outnumbered by those expressing disappointment, some residents and outside observers reacted positively to the announcement. Several Qataris in particular pointed out that the announcement was a step in the right direction.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who has been under international pressure to push Qatar to curb the abuse of migrant workers ahead of the 2022 World Cup, also weighed in.
In a statement, he said:
“This announcement is a significant step in the right direction for sustainable change in the workers’ welfare standards in Qatar. We look forward to seeing the implementation of these concrete actions over the next months.”
FIFA also announced it was postponing a scheduled May visit – billed as a check-up on labor rights in Qatar – to give the international football association “time to gain a better understanding of the measures that were presented (Wednesday).”
Others also had positive comments on the proposals:
— Rasha AbuTaleb 🇪🇬🇶🇦 ⚖🌿 (@Shamsmasr2013) May 14, 2014
— The Guardian ⚔️ of Peace ☮️ (@THEGUARDOFPEACE) May 14, 2014