Law No 21 of 2015 regulating the entry, exit and residency of expatriates came into force on December 13 with much fanfare, as Qatar claimed to abolish the Kafala system. But many workers say little has changed for them so far.
More than a month has passed since Qatar introduced a new law regulating the entry, exit, and residency of expatriates. The new law purportedly replaces the Kafala system with a contract-based system, but the power dynamics remain heavily skewed in favor of the employer. Though employment laws have been tweaked, some migrants report that little has changed in practice as they still face legal and bureaucratic barriers to actually exercising their rights.
One of the law's most celebrated reforms includes relaxed restrictions on workers' freedom to change employers. Yet, expatriates told Migrant-Rights.org that changing jobs is neither a straightforward process nor a guaranteed right.
Mohamed, who worked at the same company for more than ten years, saw an opportunity to obtain a better job once the new law was introduced. But he quickly encountered obstacles in the form of enduring attitudes and employment practices.
“I was selected for a job at a company, but they required me to bring a no objection letter from the previous employer. This took me by surprise and asked them why it’s needed since the new law is being implemented. They said there can be a new law but we need a no objection letter from the previous employer.”
“The worst part is present employer said that they won’t allow us to change jobs while staying in Qatar. My employer said that I should go back to my country ending my contract with them and then try for a new job,” he added.
Another expatriate working as a retailer in Doha for more than five years shared a similar experience:
“My employer is not in favour of us transferring jobs while staying in Qatar. They encourage us to resign from the job, leave Doha, and come back for a new job. I don’t see the logic behind it. But it’s not easy for us to find a job from our home country,” he said.
A Sri Lankan who resigned from his job in the hospitality sector a year ago, and is now under his wife’s sponsorship, approached his old employer about obtaining a new job. His former sponsor informed that “You would be able to join a new job, but not right now, will have to wait for some time. The two-year ban will still be considered when you submit the papers.”
Employers Adapt to the Law
The Ministry of Administrative Development Labour and Social Affairs provides an online portal through which expatriates can apply for a job change. However, some expatriates fear applying without their current employer's consent could bring them trouble.
“I’m not sure how safe it is to apply online for a job change, in case it is not approved, I will have to work with the same employer, that will be hard."
Maria, a Filipinia migrant, had completed her two-year contract as a secretary when she applied for a job change. “I submitted an online application. Applying online was very easy.” The ministry website requests basic information about the worker, their present employment, and a copy of the new job contract.
But the Ministry rejected her application after a week. She had not noticed that her employer renewed her last work contract for five years, instead of the usual two. She now must wait another three years to change jobs.
In fact, many companies began to issue new contracts after the law came into force. Some workers reported receiving internal memos that they would soon be issued new contracts with five-year terms, the maximum contract period allowed. Contracts are usually for a two-year term or open-ended, in which case workers can change jobs after five years.
It is still unclear if expat workers who completed more than five years with an employer before the reforms came into place are able to change employers.
Expatriates are still required to obtain exit permits from their employers, but can now challenge denials of their requests through the Exit Permit Grievances Committee. When applying for an exit permit, for annual leave or an emergency, migrant workers first submit their application in writing to their employer, as per the terms of their contract. The work contract must specify the duration and timing of annual leave, emergency leave, casual leave and sick leave. Exit permit requests should then be approved and processed by employers immediately. If the employer rejects the request, expats can appeal to the Grievances Committee.
Requests are submitted via an e-government services programme or in-person at government service complexes and police stations throughout Qatar. Once submitted, all exit permit requests are decided upon within 72 hours.
The committee has received at least 498 requests since the new law’s enforcement. According to the committee, 70% of complaints were settled amicably in coordination with employers. 20 permits were issued immediately, while 177 applications were transferred to other authorities; these included 138 runaway cases and 22 cases in which expats were accused of working for employers who were not their sponsors.
Five applications were rejected because applicants were wanted by Public Prosecution or otherwise banned from leaving the country.
“I went to my home country recently for few days, and there was no change in the exit permit, as usual, my employer provided it,” reported Kumar, an expatriate who has worked as an accounting executive in Doha for four years.
“There is no change in the exit permit system, we still need the employer’s permission to leave the country, we can’t just apply for leave, buy a ticket and catch the flight. Only if we have a dispute the committee will help,” he added.
Employers found to have confiscated passports can be fined up to QR25,000 per worker. But again, the law is hardly enforced and most migrant workers are not in a position to challenge their employers.
“Although the law forbids, my employer is keeping the passport for past several years, it’s given to us only when we go on leave. Many times I have thought of complaining, but then it will create an unpleasant situation with the employer,” said Shanthan, a merchandiser for a well-known company.
Akram, a travel advisor, said “My passport is with the employer and I don’t challenge it, because just by keeping the passport is not useful, anyway I need the employer’s permission to leave the country.”