Migrant laborers work at a construction site at Aspire Zone in Doha, March 26, 2016. 

© 2016 Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters
 
(New York) – The Qatari government’s newly announced labor reforms are a step in the right direction, but their implementation will be the decisive factor, Human Rights Watch said today.
 
This week, under pressure from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and investigation by the International Labor Organization (ILO) “concerning non-observance by Qatar of the Forced Labour Convention,” Doha pledged a series of important labor reforms. These are outlined in an ILO document where Qatar expressed a commitment to the ILO to institute a minimum wage, allow the monitoring of labor practices by independent experts, and reform the kafala (sponsorship) system that can prevent migrant workers from fleeing abusive employers.
 
These measures would be pathbreaking for Gulf countries where migrants make up most of the labor force, but the announcement gives little detail on how laws will be amended, how the changes will be carried out, or the timeframe for their implementation, Human Rights Watch said.
 
“Qatar’s decision to allow the monitoring of labor practices could help protect the rights of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who toil in sometimes hazardous or even life-threatening conditions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Because the abusive kafala system is Gulf-wide, other countries in the region should take similar steps.”
 
Qatar hosts nearly 2 million migrant workers, who comprise approximately 95 percent of its total labor force. The ILO outlined a technical cooperation agreement with Qatar that will focus on extensive reforms of the kafala system, institute a nondiscriminatory minimum wage, improve payment of wages, end document confiscation, enhance labor inspections and occupational safety and health systems, refine the contractual system to improve labor recruitment procedures, and increase prevention of forced labor.
 
Approximately 40 percent, or 800,000, of Qatar’s workers are employed in the construction sector, many on venues related to 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatari authorities have said they are spending US$500 million per week on World Cup-related infrastructure projects, including the building or restoration of eight stadiums, hotels, transportation, and other facilities. In June 2017, FIFA put in place a Human Rights Policy that says “FIFA seeks to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to its operations, products or services by its business relationships.”
 
The ILO document provides few details. For example, it states that a minimum wage will be adopted, without stipulating when, what it will be, and how it will be enforced.
 
Also on October 26, Qatari Minister of Labor Issa al-Nuaimi announced the cabinet had approved establishment of a “Workers' Support and Insurance Fund,” including a minimum wage. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news outlet, reported that Qatar had signed bilateral agreements with the countries from which most foreign workers originate. Qatari authorities should clarify the amount of the minimum wage and when it would go into effect, Human Rights Watch said.
 
Qatar’s exit visa requirement can prevent migrant workers from leaving the country merely on the say-so of a current or former employer. Law no. 21 of 2015, relating to the entry, exit, and residence of migrant workers, as amended by Law No. 1 of 4 January 2017, requires that in order to leave the country, employees provide a certificate that attests to the amicable end of the contractual relationship with their employer, or to demonstrate that abuse by an employer made it necessary to change employer or leave the country without restriction. The proposed reforms indicated in the ILO document aim to remove “restrictions on migrant workers’ ability to change employer and exit the country.”
 
Qatari authorities should clarify whether this means the abolition of the current certificate system, Human Rights Watch said.
 
Human Rights Watch has previously documented shortcomings in Qatar’s legal and regulatory framework that have led to the abuse and exploitation of Qatar’s migrant workers, including late or unpaid wages; overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, including insufficient access to drinking water and improper ventilation; and the absence of adequate protection against heat stress in a country where daytime temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer months.
 
The cooperation agreement, according to the ILO document, includes a labor inspection policy, again without providing much detail but stipulating that inspections should increase and include large-scale projects such as those for the 2022 World Cup.
 
The ILO document cites a Qatari government communication with the organization dated October 2 that references Law no. 13 of 2017, an August 16 amendment to Labor Law no. 14 of 2004, that obliges workers and employers to refer disputes, such as exit visas and employment contracts, to a Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs body. If the body is not able to settle the dispute amicably, the government will refer the case to the dispute resolution committee within the same ministry. The law stipulates that the body must resolve disputes within three weeks and includes disputes raised by migrant domestic workers, granting the right of appeal to both parties of the committees’ decisions. The communication states that the rules and procedures of the committee are pending approval by the Emir. Human Rights Watch urges passage of clear rules and procedures that put a definitive end to the kafala system and bring Qatar’s labor laws into full compliance with ILO standards.
 
The reforms indicated in the ILO document were announced ahead of an ILO meeting in Geneva in November 2016, during which the body had said it might penalize Qatar if it failed to address its exploitative labor system.
 
“Qatar’s commitments to the ILO are steps in the right direction to protect migrant worker rights, but the authorities need to get much more specific and put reforms in place without delay,” Whitson said.