Some proposals akin to forced labor
Qatar’s powerful Shura Council (Advisory Council) that met on June 22 has raised objections to several articles in a draft sponsorship law, which if passed would have met some of Qatar’s promises for labor reform.
One part of the proposal is particularly concerning, as it endorses slave-like working conditions, promoting forced labor.
“If an expatriate worker deliberately creates problems for the employer and does not comply with the contract to force the latter to end the contract or transfer his sponsorship to another employer, he should not be allowed to change jobs even if he runs away, it said. On the contrary, as compensation, he should be forced to work with the employer for double the period specified in the contract.”
Given that sponsors wield significantly more power and resources in the Qatari system, they would have little burden of proof to prevent an employee from transferring sponsorship.
According to local daily The Peninsula the council has “expressed serious apprehensions about several articles in the draft law organising the exit, entry and residence of foreign workers and returned the draft for further study.”
In May 2014, with great fanfare, Qatar announced that the Kafala system would be “abolished” and the sponsorship law reformed. Since then, there has been a series of retractions and unmet deadlines, giving serious cause to doubt that any substantive reform is forthcoming.
The tone of the Advisory Council continues to be employer-centric, giving little or no consideration to the plight of over 1.5 million migrant workers in the country, most of whom are of low-income.
Qatar is highly dependent on migrant labor to build its infrastructure, both for the 2022 world cup and other projects.
The report says:
“The Council’s chairman, Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khulaifi, concluded the discussion on the draft by saying that there was no need to hurry in issuing the law, Al Sharq reported.”
With the lives and well-being of 1.5 million workers in the country, and the population growing at 9% a year (based on May '14 to May '15 statistics) to say there is no hurry seems absurd.
The Council also proposes maintaining the 2-year ban on re-entry for migrants who do not obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from employers to continue, and for the maximum enforcement period of open contracts to be set at 10 years instead of the proposed 5 years. The committee also said domestic workers should not be included in this law.
Currently domestic workers are not included in the labor law, and are governed only by the sponsorship (kafala) system. If they were not to be included in this too, what would their status be?
Last year, Qatar announced changes to the Kafala system following an independent review by DLA Piper. The review was commissioned by Qatar to look into the widespread exploitation of migrant workers reported by both rights organisations and media. Prior to that, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Francois Crepeau reported on conditions and offered his recommendations.
Here we compare a few of the key recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur and DLA report to announcements made last year and the proposals put forward by the Advisory Council yesterday. Comments attributed to Qatar are in reference to announcements it has made since May 2014.
UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants (UN): Adopt legislation on domestic workers that include meaningful labor rights’ protection and effective compliance mechanisms.
Qatar: Promised at UN in September 2014 that it would pass a new law on domestic workers. There has been no announcement to this effect since then.
In November at the GCC Labor Minister’s meeting it was announced that a common contract would be adopted. This was quietly withdrawn in the following days.
Advisory Council 2015 (AC): Domestic workers should not be included in this [sponsorship] law.
UN: Make it easier for migrants to change employers without sponsor/employer consent and abolish the exit visa requirement, which leads to a large number of migrants being stranded in Qatar for no apparent reason. Ultimately, abolish the Kafala system and replace it by a regulated open labor market, where the work permit allows the worker to change employer.
DLA Piper (DP): Review of and proposals for the modification / reform of the exit visa system. There should be a comprehensive review of the requirement for an exit visa. The State of Qatar should review and reconsider the existing exit visa system under the Kafala system. We recommend that, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, a migrant worker seeking to leave Qatar should be granted an exit visa as of right. We recommend that the exit visa is phased out over time.
In the transitional period while the exit visa requirement is being reviewed, the default position should be that exit visas are granted as of right within a period of 48 to 72 hours. The Ministry of Interior should carry out checks of alleged wrongdoing with the employer / sponsor. Where the employer / sponsor alleges wrongdoing, the burden of proof should be on the employer / sponsor to evidence any objection to the grant of the exit visa, and in the absence of compelling evidence to support any justifiable restraint, an exit visa should be granted.
Qatar: Qatar announced last year that it would move the issuance of exit permit from employer’s mandate to that of the Ministry of Interior, as per the DLA Piper recommendation. This is yet to be implemented.
DP: Revocation of the right of an employer / sponsor who abuses the kafala system and / or breaches Qatari Sponsorship Law from objecting to a migrant worker transferring employment. We understand that the Ministry of Interior is responsible for transfer of sponsorship, but we propose that it should carry out this function in consultation with the Ministry of labor and Social Affairs. This would mean an employer that is in breach of his obligations to migrant workers under the kafala sponsorship system and Qatari Sponsorship Laws should no longer have the right to prevent the transfer of the migrant worker to another employer by virtue of refusing to grant the required 'No Objection Certificate'. The No Objection Certificate from the employer should not be a necessary pre-requisite in order to action the request.
AC: The proposals made yesterday indicate resistance to any meaningful job mobility; the council suggested that workers not be able to transfer employers more than twice, and that workers who “cause problems” with the intent of transferring sponsorship be tied to their employers for twice the original contract period.
UN: Never detain individuals for the sole purpose of having “run away” from their employer, always explore alternatives to detention, never detain children, and establish more shelters.
DP: Clarification of the legal position and rights of migrant workers that are deemed to have "absconded". There is a lack of clarity and co-ordination as to the proper application, framework and appropriate supervision of this sponsorship termination mechanism. Migrant workers should be afforded due process of law including the right not to be unlawfully detained at the point the employer / sponsor makes an absconding report to the Ministry of Interior.
AC: If an expatriate worker deliberately creates problems for the employer and does not comply with the contract to force the latter to end the contract or transfer his sponsorship to another employer, he should not be allowed to change jobs even if he runs away.
DP: Sanctions for employers' / sponsor’s failure to pay wages. We recommend that in the event of proven failure to pay wages by any employer / sponsor , that employer / sponsor should automatically be disqualified from objecting to a transfer of employment or exit visa being granted, or should have an appropriate short period of time in which he must prove that the wages have been paid. The default position should be that the transfer will be granted, and in the event of repeat offences of failure to pay such employer / sponsor should be disqualified from being a sponsor.
DP: Monitoring of payment of wages electronically. We recommend that the State of Qatar should give consideration to implementing a scheme whereby payment of migrant worker wages is monitored electronically by, or in conjunction with, the Qatar Central Bank.
Qatar: Months after announcing the Wage Protection System, Qatar announced its implementation this February. However, no clear timeline has been set. Though the council suggests the MoI be ‘authorized to transfer a worker to another employer in case of an abuse by the first employer or in public interest,’ this ad-hoc response to abuse provides for no penalties to employers.
DP: Commissioning of an independent study into the migrant worker deaths from cardiac arrest (over the next three years). The final report should be shared with the appropriate global health authorities.
We also strongly recommend that the Law No. 2 of 2012 on autopsy of human bodies is extended to allow for autopsies or post-mortem examinations in cases of unexpected or sudden deaths.
Qatar: Qatar has not commissioned a study on these deaths and continues to maintain that these deaths are “normal.”
UN: Ratify ILO Conventions, including on migrant workers (no 97 and 143), freedom of association, right to organize and collective bargaining (no 87 and 98), domestic workers (189) and private employment agencies (181), and consider seeking technical assistance from the International labor Organization to ensure Qatari legislation and practice is in line with these Conventions.
DP: Cooperation with ILO. We also recommend that the State of Qatar responds promptly to any outstanding ILO requests for the provision of documentation or other information in compliance with Qatar's reporting obligations.
Qatar: Though not related to lower-income migrants, a recent ILO report accused state-owned Qatar Airways of discrimination against female stuff. Akbar Al Baker, CEO of the airlines and a powerful member of the Qatari oligarchy, trivialized the UN agency’s findings, saying “I don't give a damn about the ILO…” This is a reflection of Qatar’s increasing resistance to both a healthy discourse on human rights and the will to implement necessary reforms.
UN: Recognize the right of association and to self-organisation for all workers, including migrants.
DP: Consultation with stakeholders on freedom of association. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs should engage and consult with relevant stakeholders and publish proposals allowing migrant workers the right to freedom of association and workers' representation. Where the State of Qatar perceives grounds for limiting these rights, such as public safety and security, these justifications should be properly developed for consultation.
Qatar: During last year’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Qatar rejected recommendations for freedom of association and expression.