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Op-Ed: Qatar could lead the way, but implementation is key

On September 9, 2020

Awaiting details of Qatar’s long-anticipated kafala reform I, along with some others who have been working on the issue of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar for the past decade, felt cautious. I’ve been following conversations on kafala since the mid-2000s and in that time I’ve seen a number of false dawns. 

Kafala, which translates as sponsorship, has for decades been the key organising principle for migrant workers in the Gulf states. While the system varies a little across the region (this 2017 ILO report is a helpful reference), at its heart kafala means that migrant workers’ presence in the country is tied to their employers, who are granted high levels of control. This includes determining whether workers can change jobs (the “no objection certificate”) or even leave the country (the “exit permit”). Kafala creates a dramatically skewed power balance in which workers are placed at the mercy of their employers for basic freedoms and unable to challenge them in the event they are abused. It drives forced labour and trafficking and for that reason has long been contentious.

Back in 2007, Qatar’s former Prime Minister famously compared kafala and the exit permit to slavery. Shortly after that, as a diplomat based in Doha, I watched him give a positive answer when asked if it would be soon abolished – the next day saw headlines along the lines of “Exit permit on way out, says Prime Minister.” It wasn’t on its way out. In 2009 an early and somewhat radical draft of the new kafala law – the first since the 1960s – was leaked to a local newspaper, raising new hopes of major reform. The law when it did arrive was a disappointment for anyone looking for anything more than tinkering.

When Qatar won the right to host the World Cup in 2010 it put a sustained global spotlight on the country for the first time in its history. That meant tough questions about human rights in Qatar in the global media, in parliaments, in boardrooms – in particular, the question of how the stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament would be built and conditions for the migrant workers whose labour would transform the country.

Prior to 2010, I had looked for research on kafala in Qatar and found little available. That soon changed as a flurry of reports were published by media, NGOs, trade unions and UN experts between 2012 and 2014, laying out the abuses suffered by migrant workers at the hands of their employers, as well as the way in which state structures including kafala drove these abuses. (I should declare an interest as I worked on some of these reports, then as an Amnesty researcher). The external political context for the kafala system was transformed, creating new incentives for the government to be seen to be addressing the problem of migrant worker abuse.

In response, the government commissioned its own report by international lawyers. Their findings were seemingly difficult to swallow – amongst other things, the report said kafala was "no longer the appropriate tool for the effective control of migration" – so they were quietly shelved and never published. Instead, the government embarked on a half-hearted reform process which it repeatedly branded, over a three year period between 2014 and 2017, as the “abolition of kafala”. Ultimately, all this really achieved was removing the word kafala from the country’s laws. The system remained intact.

It is really only in the last three years that we have seen signs of willingness on the part of the government to overhaul the structures that give rise to widespread abuse. At the height of the 2017 political crisis with its neighbours, and facing a potential ILO commission of inquiry into forced labour, Qatar sealed a partnership with the ILO. Since 2017 it has finally done away with the exit permit, introduced new processes for workers seeking compensation for wage theft, and passed a law giving domestic workers some labour rights in law

The new kafala law published in the Official Gazette yesterday represented the most serious movement by Qatar on migrant worker rights so far.

The fact that the notorious no objection certificate or “NOC” – a term so technical as to sound innocuous – is a thing of the past is what gives hope. If workers can genuinely move freely to new employers, exploitative bosses will have much less hold over them. It is important to bear in mind that elements of kafala will still remain – including the “absconding” charge, which employers have long used against workers who dare complain. There will also need to be meticulous monitoring of workers’ six month probation period, during which time new employers have to repay recruitment fees to old employers. Nevertheless, this appears to be a significant step forward and goes beyond what any other Gulf country has attempted in terms of introducing labour mobility for migrant workers. 

If (and only if) this change is accompanied by simple procedures for workers to follow and rigorous enforcement, it will make a tangible difference to workers’ rights. It will also be in the interest of responsible businesses. Employers that respect their employees’ rights and pay decent wages should start to gain a competitive advantage. The creation of a local job market ought to allow them to recruit workers from within Qatar, saving on the costs and complexity involved with international recruitment.

This should not stop us pointing out that workers’ rights don’t begin and end with kafala. There are other deep-rooted and serious issues affecting workers. Despite new fast-track labour courts and a worker insurance fund that should pay back unpaid wages, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both published reports in the past three months detailing cases of large scale wage theft. The new minimum wage announced last week will only make a difference if workers are guaranteed to receive those wages. Meanwhile, payment of illegal recruitment fees is near ubiquitous, and trade unions for migrant workers are still outlawed. Finally, like all Gulf states, Qatar continues to hold back data about the number and causes of deaths of the hundreds of migrant workers who die in the country each year. There is evidence that many of the deaths which are simply classified as “natural causes” and “cardiac arrest”, without autopsies being carried out, are linked to heat stress, potentially a result of working in extreme conditions. 

For nearly a decade now, advocates have encouraged Qatar to use its moment in the spotlight to lead the way in the region, to set an example of what is possible. This latest reform is in my view the first tangible sign that it may choose to take that path. The coming months will tell us if the government will sustain the ambition of this reform and follow it up with implementing mechanisms to protect the rights, safety and welfare of the workers who have always been such a crucial part of Qatar’s economy and society.