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September 4, 2020

Cautious Optimism as Qatar Passes Kafala System Reforms into Law

Cautious Optimism as Qatar Passes Kafala System Reforms into Law

Humanity United joins our partners and colleagues in welcoming the Government of Qatar’s announcement of the passage into law of significant reforms to the country’s foreign worker sponsorship (kafala) system and in calling for these reforms to be quickly and effectively implemented.

While we are still waiting for the full text of the law to be published, information about the new laws provided in recent news reports and in materials distributed by the Government of Qatar state that migrant workers will no longer legally need their employers’ permission to change jobs and employers will be required to pay a non-discriminatory minimum wage, including to domestic workers.  A prior reform to Qatar’s kafala system lifted the legal requirement for most migrant workers to receive their employers’ permission to leave the country.

To make a meaningful difference in the lives of migrant workers, the Qatari government must accompany these legal changes with strong action against abusive employers and ensure that complaints mechanisms can be safely and easily accessed by workers and deliver timely justice and remedy for abuse. Importantly, workers themselves must be a part of this process. Their voices must be heard loud and clear and their concerns adequately addressed.

Reactions from organizations working on the issue have been largely positive, but the majority note that changes to the law is just a first step.

Amnesty International called the passage of the reforms “a significant step towards protecting migrant workers.”

“For too long, laws that ban workers from changing jobs without their employer’s permission, along with widespread low pay, have left migrant workers in Qatar at the mercy of abusive employers. We welcome the enactment of these laws, and now call on the Qatari authorities to ensure they are swiftly and properly implemented,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Head of Economic and Social Justice. said the reforms could “(loosen) the stranglehold sponsors (kafeels) have over workers’ mobility in the labour market.”

“ welcomes the announcement and recognises the potential for positive impact on the lives of workers in the country. The removal of NOC and terms associated with it are a first for the region. Only two countries in the GCC currently have a minimum wage – Kuwait and Qatar.”

FairSquare said that if the reforms are implemented as promised, they have the “potential to give workers some agency over their destiny and start addressing the huge power imbalance between workers & employers” adding “We’ve heard before about kafala reform and been disappointed. This feels more substantial.”

“Alongside legitimate optimism, remember that Qatar must address other deep-rooted issues: e.g. for its new (minimum) wage to really work, it has to fix issues around wage theft.”

Responses from labor organizers had a similar tone. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said, “This is very good news for migrant workers in Qatar.”

“The ITUC stands ready to support the Government of Qatar in the implementation of this historic move, to ensure all workers are aware of the new rules and benefit from them. Other countries in the region should follow Qatar’s example.”

Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) General Secretary Ambet Yuson stated, “We have sought to turn successive legislative changes into real gains for workers and look forward to a sustained partnership with Qatar’s government institutions to ensure that the latest legal measures translate into tangible progress for migrant workers,” noting that there has often been a delay between legal changes and implementation on the ground.

“BWI has received many reports of the non-payment or late payment of wages by employers. In this and other areas, the COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken to deal with them has also revealed major underlying problems. In some cases, payment issues have led to work stoppages or other labour disputes.” 

The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) has been working with the government of Qatar since 2017 on reforms to the country’s kafala system. The reforms passed into legislation this week mark a significant outcome for the three-year technical cooperation agreement, with the ILO stating that the removal of the NOC “effectively dismantles the “kafala” sponsorship system.”

“By introducing these significant changes, Qatar has delivered on a commitment. One that will give workers more freedom and protection, and employers more choice.  We are witnessing what can be achieved when governments, workers and employers work together with the ILO to promote decent work for all” – Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General

In a report published last week on systemic salary abuses in Qatar, Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted steps yet to be taken to dismantle the kafala system in full, namely  “making the state the sponsor for migrant workers, and ensuring that workers’ entry, residence and work visas are not tied to employers […]and remove absconding penalties.”

Humanity United shares the cautious optimism of our partners and colleagues, and we hope that the new law translates to genuine reform with real improvements for migrant workers in Qatar, and that other countries in the region follow suit. Passing laws that protect workers is a critical first step to shifting the vast power imbalance between employers and workers, but they will mean very little if the government and employers are not held accountable to them.

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