Rights groups skeptical as new labor reforms take effect in Qatar

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A new law governing nearly all of Qatar’s expats comes into force today.

According to QNA, the law “abolishes the kafala (sponsorship) system and guarantees greater flexibility, freedom and protection to Qatar’s more than 2.1 million salaried workforce.”

But rights groups say that in reality, the changes “barely scratch the surface” when it comes to protecting low-income workers from exploitative bosses.

Chantelle D'mello

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In a statement this week, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Global Issues James Lynch said:

“This new law may get rid of the word ‘sponsorship’ but it leaves the same basic system intact… The tragedy is that many workers think that this new law will be the end of their ordeal.”

Human Rights Watch has previously expressed similar concerns. It said the changes leave the “fundamentally exploitative characteristics of the kafala system in place.”

However, Qatar has rejected these assertions.

In a statement yesterday, the Government Communications Office said, “We remain committed to the development of a labor system that is fair to both employers and employees alike.”

Minister of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs Dr. Issa bin Saad Al Jafali Al Nuaimi also weighed in during a press conference yesterday, saying:

“We urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action.”

What has and hasn’t changed

The criticism is in part because expats must still obtain exit permits to leave the country for any reason.

Additionally, the text of Law No. 21 of 2015 on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates states that an automated system was to be set up under the Ministry of Interior to grant exit permits.

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However, officials are now saying foreigners will still need to ask their employers for permission to leave the country.

That said, a grievance committee has been set up to hear complaints from those whose bosses refuse to grant a permit.

Meanwhile, while it is now easier for some people to switch jobs, the no objection certificate requirement has not been abolished.

Instead, only workers on fixed-term contracts can now change jobs after their contract is completed without an NOC.

Those on open-ended contracts must work for five years before being able to do so. And all foreigners would need labor ministry approval before taking up new employment.

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Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Other reforms include requiring all job contracts to be approved by the labor ministry before a work visa can be granted.

This will help address the problem of contract substitution. This is when a migrant is promised one set of terms regarding his employment, but tricked/forced into accepting another when he arrives in Qatar.

Finally, the penalty for holding employees’ passports has been raised to QR25,000 a worker. QNA called this one of the toughest fines in the region.

However, Article 8 states that it is ok to hold passports if the employee grants his written permission. According to Amnesty, this loophole can easily be exploited by employers.

Looking to the future

The legislation comes into force more than two years after it was first proposed. This is in part because the draft law met with resistance from the local business community and Advisory Council.

The council discussed potential changes to the law during its regular meeting yesterday, but QNA did not specify what these were.

FC Barcelona/Facebook

FC Barcelona

Going forward, Amnesty has called on Qatar to reform the legislation so that it “unambiguously abolishes exit permits, completely bans passport confiscation, and frees workers from the requirement to get their employer’s permission to change jobs.”

It also urged FIFA to take action and not “remain shamefully ambivalent to the plight of workers in Qatar.”

Finally, as FC Barcelona arrives in Doha to play in a friendly match this evening, Amnesty asked the team to speak up for human rights.

“Players and clubs cannot live in a bubble,” Lynch said.

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