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Qatar: Renaming Kafala is not Ending Kafala

On November 9, 2015
Here’s why the changes have little impact on workers’ rights

Last week, Qatari officials announced an ‘end’ to Kafala following a decree by the Emir. 

The Chairman of the National Human Rights Committee of Qatar, Ali Bin Smaikh al Marri, claimed that the new decree “replaces kafala with a working contract.” Local Arabic daily Al Sharq, quoted unnamed lawyers saying “Replacing sponsor/sponsored with recruiter/expat means a termination of the kafala system.” Al Sharq says the new law will take effect one year from the date of official publication.

Law 21 of 2015 replaces law 4 of 2009, but retains the title “Regulation of Expatriate Entry and Departure.” The title is more truthful to its content than official proclamations the new law abolishes Kafala (there is no mention of Kafala or Kafeel in the new law*). The decree renames the “kafeel” or employer to “recruiter,” but a simple change in terminology will not end end this well-entrenched immigration system.

Confusingly, the new law uses the term “recruiter” instead of “employer” without making a distinction between the actual employer and the mediating recruiting agent that operates between sending and receiving countries.

The reforms do feature important additions relating to employment mobility, exit permits, and working contracts. Article 21 allows migrant workers to change employers after their contracts expire or after 5 years of working for the same employer. The law also states that the interior minister has the power, with the approval of labor ministry, to transfer a worker’s visa to another employer for a temporary period in the case of pending disputes. The minister may transfer work visas in cases of “abuse or for the public good,” as well as “deporting any expat.”

As for exit permits, the new law requires workers to inform their employers of travel plans ahead of time. The employer must then inform the newly formed “Expats Exit committee” three days before the exit date. If the employer fails to inform the committee, the worker can file a complaint with the committee.The law requires the committee to address complaints within three days of their submission only in “urgent cases.”

Entry visas for migrant workers will not be issued without an official contract signed by all partners. Work visas cannot be transferred from one employer to another. The decree does not require any qualifications for “recruiters” allowing a citizen or legal resident to recruit workers. Article 18 of the law simply says a recruiter is one “who is qualified to handle the legal responsibility of an expat.” This ambiguous, unenforceable “qualification” carries forward the very core of Kafala; a system that exports legal responsibility for immigration control from the state to citizens. As a result, a migrant’s legal documents cannot be issued or renewed without an employer’s consent. Migrants therefore remain excessively bound to employers, made vulnerable to the power granted to employers by state; the primary characteristic of the system that has long facilitated abuse and exploitation in Gulf States therefore remains intact.

As for passport confiscations, article 8 adds that employers can keep a worker’s legal documents “if the worker wishes so” and must return documents upon a worker’’ request. This is a false option for most workers, who are unlikely to raise qualms early on in their employment, when passport confiscation usually takes place.

Article 19 requires employers to report missing workers within 14 days of their departure. It also holds employers responsible for deportation costs. If the worker is found working for an employer other than the kafeel, the illegal employer will be charged for deportation costs. If the employer is a government employee, the ministry will coordinate with the relevant state agency to cover deportation costs which will then be deducted from their employee’s salary.

The law does not address the status of migrants forced to become irregular or ‘illegal’ when the employer fails to renew or process their work permits. This omission is glaring in light of this widespread practice, as evidenced in the recent case of 100 workers arrested and lined up for deportation for fighting a case on non-payment of wages.

Any discussion of reform must acknowledge that Kafala is embedded in the exploitative practices and attitudes towards migrant workers, which the new decree still largely permits or encourages.

* The content pertaining to the law has been translated by  from the original Arabic text