As Qatar deservedly celebrates its latest step forward, Doha News asks ‘what will happen next?’
Qatar’s recent announcement to effectively dismantle its controversial Kafala system as part of reform to labour laws was rightly met with praise from the international community.
The Gulf state, under the spotlight since bidding for the FIFA World Cup 2022 a decade ago, has been widely criticised across world media for its rights abuses towards migrant workers.
From accidental deaths of labourers working on a range of world cup construction projects some years ago, to recent Human Rights Watch accusations that alleged migrant workers were not being paid their salaries, Qatar has been forced to fast track what would have taken decades of reform in just ten years — a significant feat especially when compared to neighbouring states.
Of the major new changes to the country’s labour laws is the scrapping of the ‘No Objection Certificate’ [NOC] — a document that served as an obstacle — and a nuisance — to expatriates seeking to change jobs.
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In addition, the new legislation set a much-needed minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals [QAR], as well as allowances of at least QAR 300 and QAR 500 to cover costs of food and housing respectively. The ‘non-discriminatory’ minimum wage will apply to all workers of all nationalities in both private and governmental sectors, including domestic workers. This has been branded as the first of its kind in the Middle East — a move worthy of praise.
Authorities have also vowed to ensure all sectors are complying with the minimum wage by enhancing the detection of violations, increasing inspectors, and introducing swifter and harsher penalties that are expected to help roughly 400,000 workers in the private sector alone.
But despite its positive trajectory, most of which has admittedly been triggered by Doha’s willingness and commitment to change, Qatar’s track record in implementing on the ground what has been inked in its government meetings has put a halt to early celebrations.
Even with these new measures in place, the state’s relationship with the private sector could prove to be a topic of concern for those considering to seek assistance from the government. In some cases, like the story of this security guard, the country’s procedures clearly show the little guy can indeed go head to head with the big boss — and win.
For many vulnerable labourers, including medium and senior level employees of reputable firms, filing complaints against your own employer is a daunting task with a risky outcome — even with the option of anonymity. As one employee explained to Doha News, “on one hand, my payments are withheld for weeks but if the government does indeed force my employer to issue salaries, who’s to say they won’t have to let people like myself or colleagues go to balance out the books?”
Equally as important is how the state itself invests into and enforces a culture change within the private sector to highlight how a company’s labour force is an asset despite being a temporary, rotating team, like in construction. Needless to say, the growth and success of a company can severely be affected by its most junior level workers, all of whom must be protected and nurtured to ensure wellbeing and adequate compensation while under contract.
In cases previously highlighted by Doha News, companies that were found to be in violation of laws in respect to their employees were handed notices forcing them to shut down operations. Several days later, the doors would reopen and operations would resume without issues. Though enshrined in law, the penalties were quite clearly feeble, allowing profitable companies a reasonably safe and swift exit out of troubled waters. It seems Doha has now realised this and moved to revise the issue.
The newly-announced reforms vow to inflict harsher consequences on employers, including increasing financial and non-financial penalties to those deemed to be violating the rights of their staff. This would also be implemented in cases of delayed salary payments — an issue so serious and prevalent among Qatar’s workforce in recent years that has prompted immediate action by authorities, according to reports.
For many employers in the country, the new Wage Protection System, as well as its Minimum Wage Committee, is a-long expected nightmare that will undoubtedly whip all violators into shape.
But on the flip side, employers need help too.
Qatar itself has faced a barrage of issues since the illegal Saudi-led land, air and sea blockade. Although it has unexpectedly and impressively weathered the storm and continued to stand throughout the now three years, the move by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt dealt a slight blow to the country’s economy, which has in turn trickled into the private sector. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought much of the world to a standstill.
But the gas-rich state and one of the world’s wealthiest nations quickly moved to dab those wounds in May with the announcement of a QR75bn financial package to support the private sector through the pandemic. Similar active moves must be taken by the state to help employers that have been unable to pay salaries due to the effects of the blockade and novel coronavirus outbreak.
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Though the changes can be seen by employers as drastic — and by employees, too good to be true — the new laws, once implemented, ensure the safety and stability of Qatar’s growing workforce, which in turn can only positively impact the country’s economy, infrastructure, quality of life and subsequently help polish its brand as a whole. As mentioned in Doha News’ previous editorial, the headlines never read “Construction company mistreats workers” — it is always “World Cup 2022 host, Qatar”.
But even without the upcoming world cup tournament, Qatar’s upstanding position on the world stage and its ambitions to garner both influence and power in the region requires the country to continuously progress and evolve to meet international standards — both for its own nationals and millions of its dedicated ‘guest’ workers.