Ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar has promised reforms in the heavily critized migrant workers' rights, especially the dropping of the kafala system in which workers must be sponsored by a national or a company in the country where they hope to work. But Qatar has made more announcements of reforms than actual reforms. Officials have claimed to abolish the kafala system in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Little has changed in Qatar regarding workers' rights.
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.
Experts told The Arab Weekly that little had changed in Qatar regarding workers' rights.
“Qatar, on several occasions, claimed to have abolished the kafala system,” said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to the paper.
The first instance was in “2016, after a forced labour complaint was filed against them at the International Labour Organisation (ILO),” she said, stressing that, instead of following through with its pledge to drop kafala, the Qatari government changed the word "sponsor" in the law to “recruiter" but the effect remained much the same. Zayadin said Qatari authorities failed to provide migrant workers with basic necessities regarding protection from heat and did not investigate worker deaths or provide data related to them.
Further she said one section of the system that was removed was the need for approval from a sponsor when leaving the country. However, cases of passport confiscation from sponsors or employers reportedly rose. “We also saw a rise in absconding cases and those rare cases when an employer can complain to the police about the employee being a runaway, simply for trying to leave the place of employment and that leaves you at risk of arrest and deportation,” Zayadin said.
Another aspect tied to the kafala system that was meant to be reformed is the ability to change employers without the current employer's approval. “That is still on the books even though in October 2019 they announced they were going to do that and presented it as an end to kafala and that it was going to happen in January and now we are in late February,” Zayadin said, adding that migrant workers had reached out to HRW and are waiting for the law to change.
Another aspect tied to the mistreatment of migrant workers has been delayed or non-payment from employers. Cases of people working for months without pay led the government to introduce a Wage Protection System (WPS) to guarantee that workers receive salaries through a direct bank transfer by the end of the first week of every month. Reports indicate that the system has fallen short of its intended purpose.
“There were promises made with regards to improving the WPS; however, we are receiving reports of unpaid wages and workers working for months without receiving their salaries,” said May Romanos, Gulf researcher on migrants' rights for Amnesty International. “We still have hundreds of migrant workers who are being pushed to leave the country penniless after the company failed to pay them and, on a daily basis, we receive cases about workers not getting paid for months."
Source: The Arab Weekly