Qatar domestic workers law pending vote by Shura Council; Some resistance to best practices

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Qatar’s Shura Council has debated a draft law on domestic workers law in recent weeks.

Jun 12 2017

According to reports by local newspapers, the draft law includes 22 provisions. While the law itself is a much-awaited and welcomed move, some provisions raise a red flag and seem to deliberately marginalise domestic workers.

Migrant-Rights.org calls upon the Qatari government to pass the draft law at the earliest, and review it for amendments, in keeping with provisions of the ILO Convention 189. Below is an overview of the draft law, including recommendations from the Services and Public Utilities Committee and commentary by MR.

Recruitment: No worker shall be hired except with a recruitment contract that is written and attested by the relevant government department. The hiring of the workers shall take place via one of the licensed offices as per the provisions of the Labour Law, and excluded from that are the employer, or his representative, who may get workers from abroad for at his own expense, upon the approval of the department.

There must also be provisions in the law that regulate direct recruitment. Often, workers are trafficked into the country or are duped into buying a ‘free’ visa, which is then converted to a domestic worker’s visa. If direct hiring is left unregulated, practices that bypass minimum standards in home countries and recruitment fees are essentially sanctioned.

Probation: The worker is subject to a paid probation period, the duration and terms of which are set by a decision by the ministry.

Details of what the probation period might entail are not available. The probation should apply to the working relationship as a whole, and not just to the worker. This would allow workers to lawfully terminate employment if the working conditions are not as contracted or exploitative, and seek other employment.

Employer’s obligations: The Employer commits to paying the monthly salary agreed upon to the workers in the national currency and at the end of the month, on condition that the payment is not late beyond the 3rd day of the month. The employer may not deduct any fees or expenses from the salary due to the workers as a result of the procedures of getting him into the country and other obligations stipulated in the draft law, namely in articles 7 to 10.

The law clearly states that costs of recruitment must be borne by the employer, which is in keeping with best practices. There is no mention of a minimum wage or inclusion of domestic workers in the Wage Protection System. It remains to be seen how the government will monitor non-payments and illegal deductions if there is no electronic paper trail.

Working hours: The maximum working hours are 10 hours daily. The worker also gets a paid day off that is agreed upon between both parties in the contract. The worker also deserves a paid annual leave, i.e. 3 weeks for every calendar year.

There is no clarity as to whether the worker is allowed to go out on his/her off day. Workers should be guaranteed the right to both freedom of mobility and autonomous use of leisure time on days off. It is also of utmost importance to permit a worker access to her own phone to reduce her isolation.

Our surveys, interviews with workers in sending countries, and our discussions with employers indicate that over half of domestic workers are not allowed to hold a phone. Employers stated their concerns centred on privacy and distraction at work. These concerns can be addressed by using phones without cameras and impressing upon the worker that phones can be used after work hours.

End of Service: The worker shall also get an end of service remuneration after working one full year or more. The committee recommended that this remuneration be no less than 3 weeks wage for every year of service. Moreover, the end-of-service remuneration shall not be more than 10 years maximum. The worker is paid the remuneration at the beginning of the new year depending on the period spent in service. The employer may deduct from the remuneration any sums that the worker owes to the employer.

It is unclear what, if any, burden of proof is necessary for employers to deduct workers’ owed benefits.

Termination: The employer may fire the worker with no remuneration when the worker violates the obligations mentioned in the contract or the provisions of this law. Moreover, the worker may not terminate the employment contract before its term, and the worker is entitled to the end-of-service remuneration according to the conditions stipulated in the draft-law. Any conflicts between the employer and the worker, as well as the worker’s compensations as a result of occupational injuries, shall be subject to the provisions of the Labor Law mentioned above.

The end of service deductions, termination without remuneration, and the inability for workers to terminate employment before the end of the contract are highly problematic. In a working relationship that’s confined to a private household, domestic workers are highly isolated and vulnerable. His/her access to justice is negligible at best and non-existent at worst. The capacity for domestic workers to challenge the employer on an unfair firing, let alone seek justice, is limited.

Permitting employers to terminate workers to without pay gives the former impunity. Preventing workers from terminating their own employment with reasonable cause takes away all agency from them.

These provisions must immediately be removed or amended to allow workers to end contracts of their own volition, and to allow workers fired by employers scope to change employers.

Travel abroad: The employers cannot take domestic workers outside the country against their will. In such an instance, the worker has the right to cancel their contract. In this case, the worker is owed their complete end of service remuneration and an air ticket back to their country.

This is a serious issue affecting workers in all GCC states. Employers often take workers on holidays or to visit families and put them to work. This provision will dissuade many employers. However, it is important at the time of exit that the worker’s explicit permission is received.

Additionally, regulations should detail an employer’s obligations to domestic workers when the employer’s family is out of the country. In the most insidious cases, employers lock up domestic workers in their homes or leave them to work with another household. Clear standards must be delimited for these instances, and employers must be liable for the safety of their workers.

Penalty: The proposed law suggests a maximum QR5,000 penalty on manpower agencies for violating the provisions of law, and on employers who take domestic workers out of the country without their consent or require them to work more than 10 hours.

There is not yet an effective mechanism for monitoring working hours. If a worker is expected to be home during her off day or free time, she is essentially still on call, and therefore working more than the 10-hour daily maximum. Further,  the penalty (1370 USD) for these violations are very low.

Arguments that marginalise domestic workers

The committee's discussions on the recommendations revealed the enduring reluctance to acknowledge domestic work on a par with other kinds of work, and the consequent stigmas faced by domestic workers.

Shura Council Member Rashed Al-Midadi objected to the terms of the end of service benefits and the three weeks paid annual leave. According to the report, Al-Midadi said, “... there should be some kind of balance between the rights and obligations. This article binds the employer to allocate three weeks for every year of work as end-of-year service, in addition to the three-week paid annual leave and a ticket every two years. I believe that these obligations on heads of families, especially Qatari families might be tough on those who cannot afford such obligations.”

He also added that these terms should be left to the contractual will between worker and employer.

“Why shall we force him to pay an end-of-service remuneration annually? I suggest that we keep the end-of-service remuneration as part of the contractual freedom of both parties, without binding the employer to pay it. I see that the maximum set at 10 years is something applied in government contracts, and the Domestic Workers Law should not include it. I believe that it is adequate and acceptable to set it at 5 years.”

Another council member, Naser Rashed Al-Kaabi, objected to the employer being required to pay both annual leave and end of service benefits. “I suggest that the payment of fees is limited to one of both, either pay the end-of-service remuneration or pay the annual leave and not both.”

The council members presented Qatari families as vulnerable or are at a risk of being burdened. Mohammed Abdullah Al-Sulaiti, a council member, insists that the contracts with companies and families should not be treated equally. “In fact, we should not add a burden to the families. … financial solvability of families differs from that of companies and institutions.”

The law will be voted on in the coming weeks.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the only GCC states with laws specific to domestic workers. UAE's Federal National Council has passed the latest draft law on domestic workers and now awaits final approval from President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The contents of the draft law and discussions have been translated from Arabic by Migrant-Rights.org. The commentary on the discussions, in italics, are our own.

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