(Beirut) – The success of the significant labor reform measures that Qatar introduced on September 8, 2020, will depend on how well the government enforces and monitors them, Human Rights Watch said today. The reforms will allow migrant workers to change jobs without employer permission and set a higher minimum wage for all workers, regardless of nationality.
Qatar is the first country in the Arab Gulf region to allow all migrant workers to change jobs before the end of their contracts without first obtaining their employer’s consent, one of the key aspects of the kafala (sponsorship) system that can give rise to forced labor. Qatar is the second country in the Gulf region to set a minimum wage for migrant workers, after Kuwait. The changes also apply to migrant workers who are excluded from labor law protections, such as domestic workers. However, other legal provisions that facilitate abuse and exploitation of migrant workers remain.
“Qatar’s new labor reforms are some of the most significant to date and could, if carried out effectively, considerably improve migrant workers’ living and work conditions,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While these changes bring Qatar a concrete step closer to meeting its reform promises, the test will be in how effectively the government carries them out and consistently applies them.”
Over the past 10 years, Human Rights Watch, other human rights and migrant rights organizations, United Nations experts, trade unions, and media organizations have documented how the kafala system across the region underpins migrant workers’ vulnerability to a wide range of abuses, from passport confiscation to delayed wages and forced labor. These groups have revealed how key elements of the system allow migrant workers to remain trapped in employment situations where their rights to fair wages, overtime pay, adequate housing, freedom of movement, and access to justice are at risk. One such element is employer control over a migrant worker’s ability to change or leave their jobs.
Amendments to Qatar’s 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates, which applies to all migrant workers, regardless of their inclusion in the labor law, removed language that had previously required them to first obtain permission, in the form of a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC), from their employer in order to change jobs. This means that migrant workers can now change jobs without employer permission at any time during their employment, including during the probation period, as long as they notify their employers in accordance with Labor Ministry procedures within a prescribed notice period.
The amendments require that if the employee changes jobs within the probation period, which cannot exceed six months, the new employer is required to reimburse the previous employer’s recruitment costs, but only up to two months of the workers’ basic wage.
Qatar also amended certain provisions of the labor law to allow migrant workers to terminate their employment contracts at will, both during the probation period and after, as long as they notify their employers in writing within a prescribed notice period. If either the employer or worker terminates the contract without abiding by the notice period, they would be required to pay compensation to the other party equivalent to the worker’s basic wage for the notice period or the remaining part of the notice period.
Some migrant workers, including domestic workers, are not governed by the labor law, but new Labor Ministry instructions make clear that new rules for terminating employment contracts and changing jobs are consistent for all workers.
Qatar introduced some earlier changes as well. In January, it extended the right to leave the country without employer permission to migrant workers not covered by the labor law. The government had previously provided this right to most migrant workers in 2018, but not to those in government, oil and gas, agriculture, or domestic workers. However, employers can still apply for exceptions for a few workers, and domestic workers are required to inform employers that they wish to leave at least 72 hours in advance.
“Qatar has removed another key element of employer control, this time over workers’ ability to leave or change jobs, but authorities should now look to remove all remaining elements that tie migrant workers’ legal status to their employer,” Page said.
Migrant workers – and their dependents – still must rely on their employers to facilitate entry, residence, and employment in the country, meaning employers are responsible for applying for, renewing, and canceling their residency and work permits. Workers can find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own when employers fail to carry out such processes, and it is they, not their employers, who suffer the consequences.
Qatar continues to impose harsh penalties for “absconding” – when a migrant worker leaves their employer without permission or remains in the country beyond the grace period allowed after their residence permit expires or is revoked. The penalties include fines, detention, deportation, and a ban on re-entry.
Moreover, these remaining provisions can continue to drive abuse, exploitation, and forced labor practices, particularly as workers, especially laborers and domestic workers, often depend on the employer not just for their jobs but for housing and food. In addition, passport confiscations, high recruitment fees, and deceptive recruitment practices are ongoing and largely go unpunished, and workers are banned from joining trade unions or striking.
In 2017, Qatar entered a three-year technical cooperation program with the International Labour Organization (ILO), aimed at extensively reforming migrant workers’ conditions, including by reforming the kafala system. Qatar committed to implementing a contractual system to replace the kafala system, including to undertake the renewal of residence permits directly with migrant workers instead of through employers.
Qatar should allow migrant workers to renew their residence permits directly with the government, decriminalize the act of “absconding,” and amend the labor law to guarantee migrant workers’ right to strike and to form trade unions. In the meantime, and to ensure effective implementation of the introduced reforms, Qatar should introduce an amnesty that enables undocumented workers to regularize their status and relaxes their financial and legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
Qatar also passed legislation establishing a basic minimum wage of 1,000 QAR (US$274) that would apply to all workers, regardless of nationality or sector, replacing the temporary basic minimum wage of 750 QAR ($205). Under the new legislation, if the employer does not provide food and accommodation, they are required to provide allowances of 300 QAR ($82) for the former and 500 QAR ($137) for the latter, totaling a minimum of 1,800 QAR ($494).
The wage law, which will enter into force six months after its publication in the official gazette on September 8, also establishes a national minimum wage commission appointed by the Labor Ministry to review the amount at least once a year, taking into account economic factors, including economic growth, competitiveness, and productivity, as well as the needs of the workers and their families. The ministry is not obligated to appoint worker representatives to the commission, however.
Migrant-Rights.org has remarked that the accommodation and food allowances are too low. Qatar should ensure that its periodic review of the minimum wage involves genuine worker representation to ensure that it is a “living wage” in which workers and their families can enjoy the right to a decent standard of living, Human Rights Watch said.
Qatar also introduced amendments to the labor law that set stricter penalties for employers who fail to pay their workers’ wages and increase the number of labor dispute resolution committees, designed to give workers an easier and quicker way to pursue grievances against their employers. While these steps are important, they do not go far enough to tackle wage abuse. A recent Human Rights Watch report on wage abuse found that employers across Qatar frequently violate workers’ right to wages and that efforts to improve the situation have largely failed.
“Setting a nondiscriminatory basic minimum wage will mean little for migrant workers as long as employers can withhold, delay, and deduct from their wages without consequence,” Page said. “The only way to successfully tackle wage abuse is by creating effective wage protection systems and consistently penalizing those who fail to comply.”
The New Provisions
On August 30, Qatar amended some provisions of its 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates to allow all migrant workers to change jobs in accordance with Labor Ministry procedures, removing language that had previously required migrant workers to first obtain permission in the form of a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) from their employer. Qatar also amended certain provisions of the labor law, setting out how migrant workers governed by the labor law can leave their jobs or change employers. These reforms came into effect immediately after the laws were published in the official gazette on September 8.
The amendments also removed the need for Labor and Interior Ministry approval for job change applications, which lacked a transparent process based on clear criteria. The Labor Ministry instructions on changing jobs state that workers can now independently process their job transfer and not incur any related fees. According to the instructions, the worker is required to notify their employer of their desire to change jobs and submit required documents through the Labor Ministry’s electronic notification system. Yet changing jobs is still a government-regulated process.
The amendments provide that the new employer is required to reimburse the previous employer’s recruitment costs, up to two months of the worker’s basic wage, only when the worker changes jobs during their probation period. Houtan Homayanpour, head of the ILO Project Office for Qatar, told Migrant-Rights.org that reimbursement for job change during the probation period is a matter of concern between the two employers, not the worker. He noted that the worker is not required to provide proof of such payment, and that disputes arising from that process will not interfere with the employee’s ability to change jobs.
A ministerial decree issued on September 21 further amended the 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates to allow migrant workers 90 days from the time of expiry of their residence permits to change jobs without employer permission “unless the permit has expired for reasons beyond the control of the expatriate”.
The labor law amendments provide that migrant workers covered by the law can now terminate their employment contracts at will, both during the probation period and after, as long as they notify their employers in writing within a prescribed notice period. The changes stipulate that a migrant worker must submit a one-month written notice if changing jobs within two years or a two-month notice if they have worked for their employer longer.
If either the employer or worker terminates the contract without abiding by the notice period, they would be required to pay compensation to the other party equivalent to the worker’s basic wage for the notice period or the remaining part of the notice period.
If the migrant worker leaves the country without giving notice or paying the compensation required in case they failed to provide notice, Qatari authorities can ban the worker from acquiring a work permit for one year from the date of their departure.
Qatar’s Labor Ministry instructions on changing jobs have attempted to include a safeguard – they state that if the employer fails to fulfill their legal obligations toward the worker, the worker is not obliged to observe the notice period to change jobs. This reflects part of a legal provision in the labor law that remains in cases in which a worker on a full-time job can quit if their employer breaks their obligations under the employment contract, endangers the worker’s health, assaults the worker, or misrepresents contract terms. Previously, this was the only way in which workers on fixed-term contracts could quit their jobs. The new amendments now allow workers to leave their employer or change jobs without needing to show a breach of obligations.
This provision is still helpful for workers who face abuse, as it entitles them to terminate without notice and presumably, the worker would not need to pay compensation to their employer.
Likewise, under the 2017 domestic workers law, domestic workers could previously terminate their contracts only if they could prove that their employer broke contractual obligations, physically harmed them, endangered their health, or misrepresented the contract terms, but under the new Labor Ministry instructions, domestic workers can also terminate their contract with or without notice, and in cases in which they face a breach of contract, they can still terminate contracts at any time, without notice, and maintain their right to end-of-service benefits. The instructions also state that an updated standard employment contract for domestic workers reflecting these rules is forthcoming.
Remaining Factors that Facilitate Labor Abuses
Human Rights Watch research has shown that abuses against migrant worker rights in Qatar are serious and systemic and that the violations often stem from its labor governance system, the criminalization of “absconding” – the routine confiscation of worker passports by employers, and the payment of recruitment fees by workers, which can keep them indebted for years. In conjunction with the prohibition on worker strikes, and the ineffective implementation and enforcement of laws designed to protect migrant workers’ rights, these factors have contributed to abuse, exploitation, and even forced labor.
Human Rights Watch spoke to over 80 migrant workers between January 2019 and February 2020 regarding their experiences working in Qatar. They were employed by diverse employers in various fields and include workers in professional occupations, as well as workers in low-paid jobs such as construction and domestic work.
An overwhelming majority said they experienced one or more of a wide range of labor abuses. Migrant workers cited several barriers to seeking redress or better working conditions, including the now-lifted need for employer approval to change jobs. They also cited the excessive control individual employers have over migrant workers’ legal status in the country, which allows employers to threaten and extort migrant workers to keep them working in abusive conditions and which deters workers from standing up to abusive employers for fear of retaliation.
“He bought my ticket home, but he didn’t pay my salary from January 2019 to October 2019,” a worker said of an abusive employer. “I couldn’t go to labor court because my ID was expired and I was scared I would be put in jail. My employer told me the moment I step outside I will be jailed.”
Migrant Workers’ Lack of Control Over Their Legal Status
Most workers interviewed expressed a fear of falling into irregular migration status, which could lead to arrest, detention, and deportation.
Employers are responsible for obtaining, renewing, and canceling work and residency permits for migrant workers, leaving workers dependent on them for their legal residency.
Employers are required to secure or renew residence permits for their workers within 90 days of a migrant worker’s arrival or of the expiration of the permit. An employer’s failure to secure or renew the permit within the prescribed time leaves the worker under threat of arrest, detention, and deportation, restricting their freedom of movement and discouraging them from seeking legal assistance. An employer can also cancel a worker’s residency permit at any time, which also limits the worker’s ability to remain in the country legally up to 90 days.
A worker who does not leave the country within the prescribed 90 days can be sentenced to a maximum of 3 years in prison or a maximum fine of 50,000 QAR, or both. They can be fined a further 200 QAR for each day they overstay their visa.
“I still don’t have a Qatar ID or a health card,” said a Ghanaian migrant worker who arrived in Qatar in September 2018 and who told Human Rights Watch in April 2019 that his company pays him late and sometimes doesn’t pay him at all. “If the police arrest me, they will deport me. And the sponsor will abandon me, and I won’t be given the money I am owed.”
One Kenyan migrant worker said that when he arrived in Qatar in October 2018, his company confiscated his passport and housed him in dismal accommodations with 10 to 12 people in 1 room. He said he works 12-hour days, rarely gets paid on time and some months not at all, and gets no days off, all of which violate Qatari law. For six months, he said, he waited for the company to issue him a residency permit, confining himself to his labor camp for fear of being arrested. “All you could do was go to work and back, no moving around, not even to the supermarket,” he said.
Migrant workers cited not having valid Qatari residence permits as a barrier to seeking justice. One migrant domestic worker from Kenya who arrived in Qatar in April 2019 said her employer had only paid her half her salary as of December:
She also took my passport and she never got me a QID [Qatari identity card], she hasn’t even taken me yet to get my fingerprints for the QID, so I can’t leave the house to complain about her to the labor court. How can I complain when I don’t even have a residency permit?
One migrant worker said that his employer had intentionally refused to renew his residency permit as retaliation for seeking redress for unpaid wages:
Twice I have been picked up by the police for having an expired QID – it’s not my fault, the company refused to renew my ID card after we [my colleagues and I] launched a case [at the labor dispute settlements committee] against them.
Workers’ dependence on employers for their legal status in the country could undermine the recent reforms and hinder a migrant worker’s ability to transfer to another job.
While an employer can cancel their migrant worker’s residence permit at any time by initiating repatriation procedures without providing justification, a worker who leaves their employer without permission can be punished with imprisonment, fines, deportation, and bans for “absconding.” Employers can also be punished for not reporting to the authorities when their workers have “absconded.”
Human Rights Watch documented three cases over the past year in which employers filed false “runaway” cases, also known as “absconding” charges, against migrant workers in their employ after the workers submitted abuse complaints against them to the Labor Ministry, intentionally placing them at risk of arrest and deportation in retaliation.
“After all these years that I’ve lived and worked in this country, I know now, if I try to stand up to my employers, I will lose,” said one Indian migrant worker who lived and worked in Qatar for 13 years without incident but whose most recent employer had him deported as a runaway because he complained to the Labor Ministry about his wages being delayed for months at a time.
“My boss went to the police and told them I was a runaway, even though I was at home,” said a Filipino general cleaner who said she had stopped working and submitted a complaint at the Labor Ministry after her wages were not paid or delayed and that she experienced other abuses for over a year with her previous employer. “She is doing all this because I launched a case against her.” While the worker has since been able to clear the charges against her, her employer evicted her and other workers who complained from their accommodations, leaving them to fend for themselves without a job while they awaited the outcome of the labor case.
Threats, Extortion, and the Fear of Retaliation
Several migrant workers said they had continued to work for their employers despite abusive working conditions, either because of their employer’s threats or extortion or because they feared their employers would retaliate against them, including by refusing to regularize their status in the country or by filing a “runaway” case against them. While Qatar has introduced measures aimed at improving workers’ access to justice, the right to pursue compensation is often ineffective for migrant workers whose immigration status is controlled by an employer often responsible for the abuse.
“I’m afraid of my sponsor, and what will happen to me if I go to complain,” said a laborer from Bangladesh. He said his employer had demanded that he pay him 4,000 riyals ($1,098) to issue him a residency permit and threatened to submit a runaway case against him if he did not.
“We don’t want to criticize them because what we do helps our families [back home] and we don’t want to lose these jobs,” said a cleaner from the Philippines who said her employer made unfair deductions from her wages.
“When we complain [about our working conditions], they threaten to cancel our permits and send us home,” said a security guard from Kenya who said he had experienced passport confiscation, unpaid and delayed wages, and dismal housing conditions. “I cannot fight a big company like this.”
One Indian migrant worker who had worked as a personal driver since he arrived in Qatar in 2016 said in October 2019 that his employer exploited the control he had over his legal status in the country by subjecting him to both threats and extortion:
Since the start of 2019, my employer stopped paying me properly. Sometimes it was delayed, sometimes only half salary. He kept saying he will pay soon. It was very bad because my family in India is very poor, they needed money. But I kept driving for him because I thought one day he will pay. In October 2019, I asked my employer to renew my QID, since it was expiring, he said I have to pay him QAR 5,000 if I want it renewed. He was blackmailing me. And I am so scared of driving without a QID – I don’t want to end up in jail.
I told him to just cancel my visa so I can go home, and he threatened to blacklist me from working in Qatar again. Eventually he told me I can go home, but on the condition that I agree that all my salary with him is settled. He bought my ticket home, but he didn’t pay my salary from Jan 2019 to Oct 2019. I couldn’t go to labor court because my ID was expired, and I was scared I would be put in jail. My employer told me the moment I step outside I will be jailed.