(Beirut) – Qatar’s failure to enact meaningful reforms for its kafala (sponsorship) system leaves hundreds of thousands of low-paid migrant workers at serious risk of forced labor and other abuses. Reforms announced on October 27, 2015, still require low-paid migrant workers to get their employer’s permission to change jobs or to leave the country, a system that that prevents workers from leaving abusive employers.
The new sponsorship law, law no. 21 of 2015, refers to “recruiters” instead of “sponsors” but it leaves the fundamentally exploitative characteristics of the kafala system in place. The serious mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar has been the focus of international criticism since it won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. These reforms to its kafala system, which will enter into force in one year, fall short even of the largely insubstantial pledges Qatar made in May 2014.
“The message this law sends is that Qatar doesn’t really care much about migrant workers,” said Joe Stork deputy Middle East director. “Its sponsorship system remains a serious stain on Qatar’s international reputation.”
Fewer than 10 percent of the 2.1 million people in Qatar are Qatari nationals. Migrant workers, predominantly from South Asia, occupy all the positions in low-paid sectors such as construction and domestic service.
A 2012 Human Rights Watch report described pervasive employer abuse and exploitation in Qatar’s construction industry. Numerous other reports and international media articles have documented the gravity and extent of the abuse of migrant workers in all jobs, including domestic service.
A key element in Qatar’s exploitative labor system is the kafala system, which ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to the employer or sponsor. The new law leaves in place a requirement for any foreign workers to obtain a “No Objection Certificate” from their current employer if they want to transfer legally to another employer. The workers also must obtain exit permits from their employers to leave Qatar. The requirements enable employers to arbitrarily prevent their employees from leaving Qatar to return to their home country or from escaping an abusive work situation.
International human rights law applicable in Qatar requires the Qatari authorities to respect everyone’s right to leave any country.
Article 21 of the new law states that workers who want to change employers before the end of their contracts will need the permission of their employer, “the competent authority,” as well as the Interior, and Labor and Social Affairs Ministries. The law does not define who “the competent authority” is. Workers who wish to change employers at the end of their contract will also need the permission of “the competent authority” and the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. If the length of the contract is not defined, workers must wait five years to leave an employer.
Article 22 refers to workers “not subject to the provisions of the labor law,” which includes the country’s domestic workers and workers employed in agriculture. It states that for these workers “the minister or whoever he may so delegate may approve switching employers in the event it has been established that the recruiter demonstrated arbitrary treatment toward the worker or if such switching of jobs best serves the public interest.”
Article 7 states that non-nationals on work visas can only secure the exit visas they need to leave Qatar “once the recruiter [sponsor] notifies the competent authority of his approval to the worker taking his leave.”
In May 2014, Qatar announced that it intended to implement a system under which an automated e-government system would issue exit visas after a 72-hour grace period prior to a foreign worker’s departure. The new law provides for a grievance committee for workers in cases in which sponsors refuse to grant exit visas, but the arbitrary restriction on the worker’s right to leave the country remains in place.
The new law will abolish the exit visa requirement for certain groups under article 30, namely: “investors subject to the provisions of the law regulating investment of non-Qatari capital in business activities”; “landlords, owners and beneficiaries of real estate property and housing units’’ under a law regulating real estate for non-Qataris; and “any other category specified by a decision from the Council of Ministers.”
Employer confiscation of workers’ passports has been another serious impediment to the ability of workers to leave abusive work situations. Article 8 of the new law states that employers should return workers’ passports to them after the completion of administrative processes “unless the alien asks the employer in writing to safe-keep the passport,” with a fine for violators of up to 50,000 Qatari riyals (US$13,740).
The vast majority of penalties under the new law would affect workers, not abusive employers, however. Migrant workers can face up to three years in jail and fines of 50,000 Qatari riyals ($13,740) for such offenses as: entering or exiting Qatar without the requisite documentation (article 2); remaining in Qatar after the expiration of a residence permit (article 11); and doing jobs they are not authorized to do or working for employers other than their sponsor (article 16).
“There are influential people in Qatar who recognize that genuine labor reform is necessary, feasible, and in the country’s best interests,” Stork said. “If FIFA wants to help Qatar’s reformers and ensure that the 2022 World Cup is not tainted by serious abuses, it needs to make clear to the Qatari authorities that the needed labor reforms must take place soon.”