Qatar has announced sweeping reforms to its labour market, with a view to ending the kafala system and marking a momentous step forward in upholding the rights of migrant workers. Exit visas for workers – including domestic workers, those in government and public institutions, and workers employed at sea, in agriculture as well as casual workers – have been eliminated. These workers have the same rights as all workers in Qatar. The same non-discriminatory law will apply for all workers including domestic workers. A new evidence-based minimum wage law that applies to all nationalities is established. Both ILO and ITUC praise the breakthrough.
The trade union movement and human rights groups have campaigned for years to have kafala abolished across the Gulf, whose countries use millions of low-paid immigrant workers mostly from south and south-east Asian countries including Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines. There are more than 1.9 million migrant workers in Qatar, about 90% of the country’s total population, according to the ministry of development planning and statistics. Fifa’s decision to locate the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has hugely increased scrutiny, and the Qatar government ultimately responded by signing a formal cooperation with the ILO promising to implement improvements.
On 16 October 2019, the Council of Ministers of the State of Qatar unanimously endorsed new legislation allowing workers to change employers freely. Workers in Qatar had previously required a no-objection certificate (NOC) from their employer in order to do so. A Ministerial Decree by the Minister of Interior was also signed, removing exit permit requirements for all workers, except military personnel. Together, these steps mark the end of kafala in the country. The new laws will come into effect from 1st of January 2020.
Under the new laws, workers will be able to change jobs following an initial probationary period. Previously, they required a no-objection certificate (NOC) from their employers.
The removal of exit permit requirements for all workers, except military personnel, means that they also will be free to leave Qatar, whether temporarily or permanently, without the permission of their employers.
The non-discriminatory minimum wage will apply to all nationalities and all sectors of the labour market. The level will be set later this year.
ILO: This is a momentous step forward
New labour laws in Qatar that allow foreign workers to freely change jobs and leave the country without the approval of their employers has been praised by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as “a momentous step forward” in upholding the workers’ rights. The ILO said it has been working with the Qatari authorities since November 2017 through a three-year technical cooperation programme. An ILO Project Office there, established in April 2018, has been supporting the labour reform agenda.
ITUC: Qatar is changing
“Qatar is changing. The new tranche of laws will bring an end to the kafala system of modern slavery: 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; and a government fund to ensure workers are not disadvantaged by exploitative employers, while the state pursues recovery of entitlements.
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.
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.
The reforms need to become embedded in employment practice and strong legal compliance. But the partnership between the Qatar government and the ILO supported by the ITUC is working to change lives – to change a nation,” said Sharan Burrow ITUC General Secretary.
Human rights activist
Nicholas McGeehan, an advocate for improved human rights in the Gulf, said the announced employment reforms should be greeted with “very cautious optimism” until they are actually passed into law and implemented. He added that: “Urgent action is needed on heat stress in Qatar, and in the Gulf generally.”