Last week Qatar amended its kafala (sponsorship) law in a move that affects the vast majority of the country’s 2.5 million population of expatriate professionals and labourers. The changes will make it easier for migrant workers to leave the country which was very difficult under the previous kafala system.
Qatar found itself in the spotlight after it won the 2022 World Cup with the international media often criticising the situation of its migrant workers.
With nearly $200 billion (Dh734 billion) worth of infrastructure projects planned until the tournament kicks off, hundreds of thousands of workers were recruited, mainly from Asian countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh, to power Qatar’s lightning-quick construction wave. The law has been the subject of debate among government bodies and the Shura (advisory) council for over a year as many human rights organisations have championed for improvements to workers conditions.
Under the previous system, an expatriate worker had to obtain an exit permit from his or her employer before he or she could leave the country. Under the new law, the process would be done through the Ministry of Interior and permits would be granted provided that the worker submits the request at least three days prior to their intended date of travel.
However, the ministry would consult with the employer to decide on the approval or rejection of the worker’s departure. If the employer refuses the exit of the employee, the latter can appeal the decision through the ministry and the complaint would be addressed with a special committee.
Another major amendment is the introduction of fixed-term contracts and waiving the controversial no-objection certificate (NOC) that forced expats to leave the country for two years if they wanted to change jobs unless they had their sponsor’s approval. Under the new law, an expat can switch jobs once their contract is up or after five years have passed in cases of open-ended contracts. The way the law is implemented remains to be seen as it does not go into effect until the end of 2016.
The announcement of the amended law drew varying reactions and some praised them as an improvement to the current situation and a change that satisfies foreign workers as well as Qatari employers.
“Qatar abolishes the last manifestation of slavery,” Qatari columnist Mohammad Fahd Al Qah’tani posted on Twitter, referring to the current sponsorship system as a “monopoly over human souls.”
In statements to Al Arabi Al Jadid newspaper, Ali Bin Smaikh Al Marri, the chairman of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), welcomed the new law that “protects the two parties of the relationship.” By issuing the law, he added, the relationship between employers and expats is based on a contractual agreement.
Al Marri added that allowing foreign workers to have their exit permits issued within 72 hours proves the government’s “seriousness in taking all the measures to pass legislations and laws in the field of human rights.”
Qatari lawyer Yousuf Al Zaman told daily newspaper Al Arab that, once passed, the new law means the sponsorship system is a thing of the past. “The [new] law allows the working expat freedom of movement and switching jobs according to the regulations brought about by this law,” he said adding that the Ministry of Interior will be in charge of processing exit permits, a procedure that he said was “misused” by some sponsors.
Allowing a foreign worker to switch jobs only when their contract is over or after a five-year stint in cases of open-ended contracts is “reasonable and satisfy both sides, economic expert Abdullah Al Khater told Al Arabi Al Jadid. This way, he added, an employer will have had benefited from the foreign worker that he recruited and the worker, in turn, had fulfilled his duty toward the employer.”
Rights groups have been cautious to praise the amendments, saying they fall short in several areas. They point to the fact that workers still have to apply for an exit permit, which should be abolished entirely in their view.
“That an employee can leave the country only once they apply to the ministry of labour, and their employer informs the ministry of their approval shows the power the employers hold over the workers,” Aidan McQuade, Anti-Slavery International director, said, describing the reforms as “merely cosmetic.”
Speaking to Gulf News, Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the amendments are “extremely disappointing and do not go as far as a previous pledge.” He added that in order to improve the conditions of migrant workers, Qatar must “abolish the exit visa system and outline conditions that allow workers to change employers.”
The law might potentially prove to be a major disappointment if it is not implemented retroactively, which would mean the five-year period in open-ended contracts will be calculated starting the date the law goes into effect next year rather than the date the contract was initially signed.
“I can’t leave my job before five years [under the new law], and after these years, still I might not get the approval of my sponsor to change job as my contract is open-ended,” said Aya Diab, an Egyptian construction engineer who works in Doha.
“Nothing changed. It is the same. Still you can’t change jobs. I will not benefit from [the new law]. I don’t care about the exit permit to take it from the government or from the company. What I care about is to have the freedom to change from one job to the other if I want,” she added.
By Ahmed Morsy
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