Critics sceptical of new law for foreign workers in Qatar

Sunday 18/12/2016
Migrant workers walking next to construction site in Doha

London - Qatar has replaced its much-criticised kafala foreign labour system but critics say the new labour law closely re­sembles the previous one.
The move comes after interna­tional criticism of Qatar’s treat­ment of foreign labourers, particu­larly the hundreds of thousands of construction workers building sta­diums and infrastructure ahead of FIFA’s 2022 World Cup.
“The new law is the latest step towards improving and protect­ing the rights of every expatriate worker in Qatar,” Issa bin Saad al- Jafali al-Nuami, Qatar’s minister for Administrative Development and Labour and Social Affairs, said after new law went into force on December 12th.
“It replaces the kafala system with a modernised, contract-based system that safeguards workers’ rights and increases job flexibility,” he said.
Critics, however, say the new law does not differ significantly from the old measure and is still, in effect, a sponsorship or kafala programme that requires foreign workers to obtain permission from their sponsor — or kafeel — to travel abroad or change jobs. It was this provision, more than any other, that was roundly criticised.
The one significant change is that the new law creates so-called grievance panels to adjudicate dis­putes. Grievance panels are already hearing complaints, local media reported, and must rule on cases within three working days. An­other change is that it has become easier for some workers — those on fixed-term contracts — to change jobs after their contract is com­pleted.
“These new legislative changes, combined with ongoing enforce­ment and a commitment to system­atic reform, not just in Qatar but also in countries of origin, will en­sure workers’ rights are respected across the entire labour pathway,” a government statement said.
Many observers said the changes to the kafala system were only su­perficial.
“This new law may get rid of the word ‘sponsorship’ (kafala) but it leaves the same basic system in­tact. It is good that Qatar has ac­cepted that its laws were fuelling abuse, but these inadequate chang­es will continue to leave workers at the mercy of exploitative bosses,” Amnesty International Deputy Director for Global Issues James Lynch said in a statement.
“Key problems that drive abuse remain. In practice, employers can still stop migrant workers from leaving the country. By making it easier for employers to confis­cate workers’ passports, the new law could even make the situation worse for some workers. The trag­edy is that many workers think that this new law will be the end of their ordeal.”
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) criticised the new law as nothing more than a re­working of the old kafala system.
“Qatar has renamed the appall­ing kafala system but the fact is that migrant workers will remain bonded to their employers,” ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement.
“Putting new labels on old laws does not remove the stain of mod­ern slavery, and workers will con­tinue to be forced to work under a feudal employment system.”
Doha called for patience. “We urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclu­sions until there has been time to see the new law in action,” said Nuami.
Qatar’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs estimates there are nearly 2 million foreign workers in the country. The majority of for­eign workers, particularly those in the construction industry, come from East Asia, particularly Bang­ladesh and India. Qatar estimates that Qatari natives make up about 300,000 of the small Gulf state’s to­tal population.
Qatar has heavily relied on for­eign labourers in its bid to build nine stadiums and renovate three existing structures ahead of the 2022 World Cup, in addition to building other infrastructure such as roads and hotels. Football’s world governing body FIFA has come under criticism for failing to protect the rights of migrant work­ers. Qatar has flown home about 10,000 workers who were victims of labour abuse during 2015, Qatari government figures indicate.