Labor reforms enacted in Qatar in 2015 failed to provide meaningful protection to low-paid migrant workers. Despite several years of sustained criticism over its mistreatment of migrant workers, who continue to arrive in huge numbers and are acutely vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor, the reforms still require  workers to secure their employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country, preventing them from leaving abusive situations.

Having previously placed few restrictions on the activities of international media, authorities detained and interrogated two groups of foreign journalists who were attempting to report on migrant workers’ living and working conditions.

Migrant Workers’ Rights

Less than 10 percent of Qatar’s population of 2.1 million are Qatari nationals, and the country is increasingly dependent on migrant labor as Qatar continues to build stadiums and develop infrastructure as it prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In 2015, it had the fourth highest population growth rate in the world; according to the most recent statistics, nearly 80 percent of the population is male.

Low-paid migrant workers, mostly from countries in Asia and to a lesser extent Africa, continue to be abused and exploited. Workers typically pay exorbitant recruitment fees and employers regularly take control of their passports when they arrive in Qatar. Many migrant workers complain that their employers fail to pay their wages on time, if at all.

The kafala (sponsorship) system ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to their employer or sponsor. The system also requires that foreign workers obtain exit permits from their sponsors when they wish to leave Qatar; in practice, this enables employers to arbitrarily prevent their employees from leaving Qatar and returning to their home country.

Workers can become undocumented when employers report them to the authorities as having absconded, or when they fail to pay to renew workers’ annual ID cards. A lack of proper documentation prevents workers from accessing subsidized healthcare and leaves workers at risk of arrest and detention or deportation.

Migrant workers are prohibited from unionizing or engaging in strikes, although they make up 99 percent of the private sector workforce. Accommodation is often cramped and unsanitary.

Domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the Labor Law, and as such are further vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In addition to labor abuses, many domestic workers face physical and sexual abuse. A law on domestic workers continues to remain in draft form and has not been made public.

In October, Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, issued Law No. 21 of 2015 on the regulation of the entry and exit of expatriates and their residency. The new sponsorship law refers to “recruiters” instead of “sponsors” but it leaves the fundamentally exploitative characteristics of the kafala system in place. 

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 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.

If the length of the contract is not defined, workers must wait five years to leave an employer. The workers also must still obtain exit permits from their employers to leave Qatar. 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 workers’ right to leave the country remains in place.

In February, Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, approved an amendment to Qatar’s Labor Law that introduces a wage payment protection system that employers will use to pay workers’ salaries directly into bank accounts.  

Freedom of Media

Qatar enjoys a reputation as a center for media freedom, due in no small part to its funding and hosting the Al Jazeera news network. However, in 2015, authorities detained two groups of foreign journalists attempting to report on the treatment of migrant workers in the country.

Authorities detained a group of journalists from West German Broadcasting in March, and a group of BBC journalists in May. In both cases, police officers confiscated equipment, including memory cards and phones, and both groups were questioned separately by state security officers and the public prosecutor. Authorities released the German journalists after 14 hours of questioning, but the BBC team spent two nights in detention. Qatar’s Government Communications Office said the BBC crew had “trespassed on private property, which is illegal in Qatar.”

Qatar’s penal code contains provisions that are inconsistent with free speech standards, notably article 134, which provides for five years’ imprisonment for anyone convicted of criticizing the emir or vice-emir. Vaguely worded provisions in a draft media law from 2012 and a draft cybercrime law from 2014 pose a further threat to the right to free expression.

Women’s Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity

Provisions of Law No. 22 of 2006, Qatar’s first codified law to address issues of family and personal status, discriminates against women. Under article 36, a marriage contract is valid when a woman’s male guardian concludes the contract and two male witnesses are present. Article 57 forbids husbands from hurting their wives physically or morally, but article 58 states that it is a wife’s responsibility to look after the household and to obey her husband. Other than general provisions on assault, the penal code does not criminalize domestic violence. Marital rape is not a crime.

Article 34 of Qatar’s nationality law does not allow Qatari women, unlike Qatari men, married to non-Qatari spouses to pass on their nationality to their children.

In May, only 2 women out of 29 representatives were elected to the Central Municipal Council. There are no women in Qatar’s Shura Council (an advisory body), which has yet to have elections.

Qatar’s penal code punishes “sodomy” with one to three years in prison, and under Sharia law, which applies to Muslims, any individual convicted of zina (sex outside of marriage) can be sentenced to flogging (non-married persons) or the death penalty (married persons). According to media reports, dozens of people have been given flogging sentences—ranging from 40 to 100 lashes—since 2004, including at least 45 between 2009 and 2011.

Key International Actors

In September, Qatar sent 1,000 troops to Yemen to assist in the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi forces, also known as Ansar Allah, which effectively ousted the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi in January.

In May, Qatar endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, committing to do more to protect students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict, including implementing the Guidelines on Protecting Schools from Military Use.