Qatar has announced sweeping reforms to its labour market with a view to ending the hated kafala system of sponsored migrant labour, according to reports.
Kafala has been described as a form of modern slavery.
We have long called for the end of the abusive kafala system in Qatar, and it would be a major step forward if these measures finally allow workers to return home or change jobs without restriction
– Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International
International labour groups said Qatar’s labour and social affairs minister yesterday (16 October) told a gathering that the state’s Council of Ministers unanimously endorsed new legislation allowing workers to change jobs freely without a “no objection certificate” from their employer, and to leave Qatar without an exit visa.
Together, these requirements have trapped many migrant workers in slave-like conditions when their wages are cut or stopped, leaving them unable to change jobs or go home when unscrupulous bosses withhold the necessary paperwork.
The draft laws will now be referred to the Advisory (Shura) Council, and then for approval by the Emir HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, with the laws expected to come into force by January 2020, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Qatar’s labour and social affairs minister relayed the news while addressing a centenary event of the ILO in Doha yesterday, which was attended by ITUC.
The ILO, ITUC and the labour ministry have been negotiating to end the kafala system since 2017.
The Council of Ministers has been contacted for confirmation.
The ILO called yesterday’s announcement “a momentous step forward in upholding the rights of migrant workers”.
Kafala systems affect 23 million migrant workers across the Gulf region and two million in Qatar.
The Council of Ministers also endorsed a new law to establish a non-discriminatory minimum wage, the first in the Middle-East, the ILO said.
It is not yet known how much the new rate would be but an “evidence-based minimum wage law which applied to all nationalities” would be brought in on 1 January 2020, ITUC said.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, said: “Qatar is changing. The new tranche of laws will bring an end to the kafala system of modern slavery”.
According to the ITUC, the new laws would see:
Exit visas for all workers including domestic workers eliminated;
A system of contracts that are transparent and labour courts to enforce them;
The end to permission to leave a job, with criteria equivalent to any modern industrial relations system;
A government fund to ensure workers are not disadvantaged by exploitative employers, while the state pursues recovery of entitlements.
Human rights campaigner Nicholas McGeehan said the announcement should be greeted “with very cautious optimism” until it is announced in law and implemented.
Amnesty International said it hoped the improvements would be implemented as soon as possible.
Its deputy director of global issues, Stephen Cockburn, said: “We have long called for the end of the abusive kafala system in Qatar, and it would be a major step forward if these measures finally allow workers to return home or change jobs without restriction.”
Qatar has had problems with some contractors either paying months too late or not at all.
In August hundreds of migrant workers went on strike protesting against poor working conditions, months-long wage delays and the threat of reduced salaries.
Mrs Burrow added: “We recognise that an evidence-based minimum wage, the first of its kind in the Middle East, will be a major improvement for workers, and will guarantee a minimum level of protection. We urge the government to announce the new rate as quickly as possible.”
She pleaded for other countries in the region to follow Qatar’s example and do away with similar bad practices, adding: “Workers want to work in the Gulf states, they want to support their families at home, but they also want decent work where they are treated fairly and with dignity and respect.
“While we witness the changes in Qatar, sadly this is not the case in neighbouring countries where migrant workers are still treated as less than human with few rights and freedoms.”
Image: Migrant workers in West Bay, Doha, Qatar (Alex Sergeev/www.asergeev.com/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail