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

© 2016 Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters

(Beirut) – The bill that Qatar’s emir signed on September 4, 2018 now allows foreign workers the right to leave the country but excludes several key groups of workers and falls short of Qatar’s reform pledges over the last year, Human Rights Watch said today. Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 Football World Cup and employing thousands of extra migrant workers to build infrastructure for the tournament, has come under increased scrutiny of its treatment of foreign workers since winning the bid.

Law No. 13 of 2018 cancels requirements for most migrant workers covered under the country’s labor law to get permission from their employer to leave the country, a longstanding violation of workers’ rights. The exit visa requirement enabled employers to arbitrarily prevent employees from returning to their home country. However, the new law which allows the temporary exit or final departure of a migrant worker, excludes migrants not under the labor law including those in the military, public sector, and domestic work, and allows employers to apply to exclude some other workers. Qatari authorities should end exit permit requirements for all workers.

“While Qatar is taking steps to allow some workers to leave the country at will, the new law still allows employers to bar other workers from leaving,” said Belkis Wille, senior Qatar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This falls short of the public commitments Qatar made for labor reform to meet international human rights standards.”

Qatar had been under pressure for labor reform from international labor and human rights organizations to address abusive conditions for migrant workers building stadiums and associated infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, which cost an estimated $500 million per week. The Qatari government, in response, had promised major reforms.

Under Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system, which exists in various forms across the Middle East, migrant workers’ legal status in the country – including their entry, residence, transfer, and exit – depends on a single employer-sponsor. Under the exit visa system, the country’s nearly two million migrant workers could only leave the country with the employer’s permission, or the authorities’ permission if the employer refused. The partial cancellation of exit permits addresses one element of the kafala system that had trapped some workers in abusive conditions, but still leaves workers unable to change employers without their initial employer-sponsor’s permission.

While the new law excludes migrant workers not covered by Qatar’s labor law, contacts close to discussions say that the authorities have promised to phase out those exit permits within the year, but without explaining why there was a need for the delay. The Peninsula, a Qatari news site, reported that a ministerial decree is to follow outlining rules and procedures for the exit of workers who fall outside the Labor Code.

The other exception in the new law allows maintaining the exit visa requirement for some employees. Employers can submit names to the authorities of up to five percent of their foreign staff that, due to the nature of their work, must seek prior consent from their employer to leave the country. Contacts close to the discussions noted that this is usually because of the need to control company assets or sensitive information.

The amendment calls for the establishment of an Exit Permit Grievance Committee to address any cases in which a worker is unable to leave the country within three working days. Qatar’s exit visa requirement violates international human rights law, which provides that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Any restrictions can only be individual, for a legitimate reason, and proportionate – as, for instance, during a criminal investigation.

Because of the excluded categories of workers, the new law does not meet these international labor standards. Qatar should ensure that all foreign workers have the right to leave Qatar, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to Qatar, only Saudi Arabia requires exit permits for migrant workers. In other Middle Eastern countries, however, a migrant worker can still be blocked from leaving the country if a sponsor files a complaint with immigration authorities or if the employer has not cancelled their residency visa.

In October 2017, Qatar agreed with the International Labour Organization (ILO), through its technical cooperation agreement (2018-2020), that it would lift the restrictions on migrant workers’ ability to leave the country.

Qatar made a number of additional commitments under the agreement. They included replacing the kafala system with a new contractual system and renewing residency permits directly with migrant workers instead of employers. Qatar also agreed to set a non-discriminatory minimum wage, to improve a system to ensure that wages are paid, and to bar employers from confiscating workers’ passports.

The agreement also requires improving labor conditions inspections, occupational safety, and health systems, including a strategy to prevent harm to workers during extreme heat conditions, and labor recruitment procedures.

The ILO said when Qatar made the commitments that, “the Government of Qatar expressed a commitment to align its laws and practices with international labour standards and fundamental principles and rights at work, including by implementing related comments of the ILO supervisory bodies.”

“Qatar has had the opportunity to show it is serious about making reforms by abolishing the exit permit requirement in full,” Wille said. “The failure to deliver fully and transparently on its exit visa commitment dampens the hope that Qatar will come through on its promises for much larger-scale labor reforms in line with international law.”