In response to international criticism, the Qatari government makes a sincere attempt to address its expat worker problems.
Reacting to international backlash about the treatment of expatriate workers and labor laws of the country, the government of Qatar has announced several changes to its labor system.
The Ministries of Interior and Labor of Qatar announced changes at a joint press conference in Doha on Wednesday.
“We are going to abolish the kafala system and it will move to the legislative institutions,” said Colonel Abdullah Saqr Al-Mohannadi, Human Rights Director of the Qatari Interior Ministry.
“It will be replaced by a contractual relationship between employer and employee. We hope that the exit visa will be abolished completely,” Mohannadi was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
“Today’s announcement is a small step on a very long journey – and it is absolutely vital that the reforms promised today are implemented quickly and fully.” Jim Murphy, Shadow International Development Secretary.
The proposed amendments include:
- Doing away with the country’s ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, which binds workers to a single employer, and replacing it with contracts.
- Granting greater autonomy to expat workers to change jobs or leave the country because the employers will have a lesser say in No Objection Certificates.
- Ministry of Interior, rather than employers and sponsors, will have the authority to grant exit permits.
- Workers leaving the country without an NOC can return to the country before two years.
- Amendments to improve the living conditions of the workers.
- Stricter laws to regulate wage violations.
- Employers need to show compelling proof of any objection against a worker leaving the country.
- Disputes to be resolved within three days.
- Mandatory employee welfare contracts.
- Closer bilateral links with the worker’s country.
The proposals are subject to approval by the Shura Council, Qatar’s legislative council, before being implemented.
“We hope that this [the reforms] will be soon, but no timeline has been fixed,” said Muhammad Ahmed Al Atiq, Assistant Director of Border Passports and Expatriate Affairs at the Ministry of Interior at the press conference.
“We want to provide more protection to expat community and workers in this country, to provide more protection and safeguard their rights,” said Salih Saeed Al-Sahwi from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, as quoted by Doha News.
Removal of the exit permit system may mean reduced control of the employees by their employers and this may adversely affect the country’s business sector. The system, irrespective of its limitations, did work in favor of employers and restricted the movement of defaulting employees.
Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, claimed it was a “significant step in the right direction for sustainable change in the workers’ welfare standards in Qatar.”
“Today’s announcement is a small step on a very long journey – and it is absolutely vital that the reforms promised today are implemented quickly and fully,” said Jim Murphy, Shadow International Development Secretary.
However, international watchdogs are still apprehensive of the draft reforms contributing to improving workers’ conditions.
“My worry is that Qatar will follow Bahrain’s footsteps in renaming the sponsorship system without actually abolishing the majority of the exploitative laws and practices that encompass the system,” says Rima Kalush, at Migrant-Rights.Org.
Qatar’s expatriate population make up 85% of the total population, which is about 2.1 million (1.39 million expats). Majority of these expats come from Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Philippines.
Qatar is the richest country in the world based on GDP per capita and its massive construction projects are a reflection of its immense wealth.
The country was embroiled in issues concerning the safety and well being of its expat workers, when agencies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and The International Trade Union Confederation highlighted the plight of immigrant workers and their living conditions.
The proposed reforms are the government’s attempt to improve its tarnished international image. The changes were officially described as “far-reaching labor market reforms.”