Qatar Labor Law Change: Archaic ‘Kafala’ system abolished, but is life better for Qatari migrant workers?
by Kushagra Pokhrel – Research Coordinator
“It has been horrible. I don’t know why I came here. I consider this to be the worst phase of my life. My father passed away while I was struggling here; I couldn’t leave to see him for the last time even after begging CID, crying and falling at their feet.”
– 31-year-old Indian former employee of Krantz Engineering in Qatar: Amnesty International 2013
Stories like the one above have defined the plights of migrant workers in Qatar, as, over the past decade, an increasing number of internationally renowned media and human rights NGOs have managed to pull the veil on one of the most restrictive labor law regime in the world. Facing international criticism, in 2015, Qatar promulgated a new law regulating treatment of migrant workers – replacing the old Kafala (Sponsorship) system which tied the employment, as well as the immigration status, of a migrant worker to his or her employer. The Kafala system, which allowed the sponsor (often the worker’s employer) full control over a worker’s entrance and exit from Qatar, as well as their ability to transfer employment while in the country, was routinely accused of generating conditions of extreme worker abuse, including that of Forced Labor. Having been in effect since December 2016, the new Public Law No. 21 of 2015 does not, however, protect workers from the most serious abuses that came to typify Qatar’s construction industry as well as other low paying labor sectors.
While the language has been altered – using the word Recruiter, instead of Sponsor as done previously – and there are modest alterations on job transfer and exit requirements, the new law, nonetheless, keeps the most exploitative features of old system largely intact. Under Article 8, it is still incumbent upon the Recruiter to acquire Residency Permit for its employees, with no consequences for the Recruiter for a failure to do so. Many laborers previously living under risk of deportation due to lack of Residency Permits find their situation unchanged under the new law.
There still remains a strict policy against job mobility as it pertains to the purpose for which Entry or Residency permit was granted to a foreign national. Article 16 states that the person obtaining “Entry Permit or Residency Permit for a specific purpose, or for work with a specific party, shall not violate the stated purpose for which he was granted permit, nor leave the work provided by his Recruiter, nor work with another party for which he has not received a permit”. What has changed, however, is that, upon completion of a worker’s contract, or upon reaching five years of work under a specific employer, governmental authority can grant permission for a worker to change jobs. Change of work outside the two specified instances, still requires Recruiter permission.
Change in the exit visa requirements is seen as one of the positive provisions under the new law, lessening previous restrictions. It grants Foreign Nationals recourse at the Foreign Nationals Exit Grievances Council in the event that a Recruiter obstructs his or her departure. However, the exit requirement, as it was designed under the previous law that necessitated employer permission, still exists, and the effectiveness of the new provision will hinge on the ability of the Grievances Council to resolve matters promptly and in a uniform manner. Additionally, “the arbitrary restriction on the workers’ right to leave the country remains effectively in place”.
Due to the factors listed above, the reforms, while positive, do not go nearly far enough towards eliminating existing conditions conducive to worker abuse and forced labor. Having left the Kafala system largely intact while offering only cosmetic changes, the new migrant labor system is still fundamentally exploitative and in need of a comprehensive overhaul in order to meet minimum standards.
As such, listed below are some of the reforms that the state of Qatar must implement to immediate effect: end exit visa requirement in its entirety; allow all workers to change jobs free of all conditions; establish minimum wage standard and collective bargaining; establish state institution for workers to collectively raise concerns of abuse and exploitation; require companies hiring foreign workers to obtain copies of signed and notarized contract in their home countries with no recruitment fees; monitor and enforce, proactively, the statute against passport seizure, with strict penalties for confiscation of workers’ passports; establish provisions safeguarding worker’s status with the country whose employers have failed to arrange residency permits; and eliminate deduction of salaries for any reasons.