Just six months after Qatar introduced significant reforms providing greater mobility for migrant workers, the Shura Council has pushed back with recommendations that, if accepted, will effectively undo all these reforms.
The controversial recommendations include not permitting job change during the contract term; restricting the number of times a worker can change jobs, and the percentage of workers in a company that can be allowed to change jobs; increasing the percentage of workers who require exit permit; and stricter action against ‘illegal’ workers.
Following the first Shura Council meeting of 2021, Migrant-Rights.org had expressed concerns about the tone and content of discussions.
Labour Minister Yousuf bin Mohamed al-Othman Fakhro assured council members that “the transfer of sponsorship has rules, controls, and procedures that will preserve the rights of all parties” and that “the number of workers who requested a transfer is few and that those whose requests were approved are smaller.” That was not the only comment to raise doubts on the implementation of the reforms. He also stressed that while the law allowed workers to submit a request to change employers, it was still “subject to approval or rejection after communicating with the concerned parties.”
According to a QNA press release carried by local media, the Shura Council issued the following recommendations at its meeting yesterday. MR’s assessments are noted below each proposal.
Increase the percentage of workers who require an exit permit from the employer from 5% to 10%.
- Unless a specific argument is provided on why an employee must be on the list (for example, those with signatory powers or access to the company’s cash or intellectual property), a blanket increase in this percentage would only lead to more exploitation.
The worker is prohibited from requesting a change of employer during the contract period, which should not exceed two years, unless there are reasons justifying this or with the approval of his employer.
Ensuring the number of times allowed to change the employer does not exceed three times during the worker's stay in the country.
- Any form of restriction on job mobility, including approval processes under the kafala regime, will result in conditions of forced labour n. Furthermore, in a country highly dependent on foreign labour (over 85% of the population and over 93% of the labour market), workers are likely to stay in the country for many years. There are also second- and third-generation migrants who consider Qatar home. To restrict the number of times they can change jobs is shortsighted, as greater mobility in the labour market will ensure retaining skill and knowledge within the country.
Ensuring that the percentage of workers who received approval to change employers does not exceed 15% annually for a single company, except with the approval of the employer.
- If there is a high employee turnover in a company, there must be reflection and review of why the workplace is not considered ideal. To instead force workers to continue work against their will does no favours for the business or its staff.
Workers on governmental or quasi-governmental contracts, should not be granted a change of employer without the consent of the employer until the term of those contracts expires and that the visa should be linked to the contract.
- Public sector organisations collectively are the largest employers of migrant workers and are also the largest contractor of projects. To exclude them from reforms would mean only a minuscule percentage of workers would benefit from reforms.
Fair compensation for the costs the company spent on the worker.
- The current reforms ensure the new employer reimburses one month’s salary to the old employer if the job change is within the probationary period. However, a non-specific recommendation of ‘fair compensation’ would result in visa trade and workers bearing the costs of the job change.
Address the ‘phenomenon of illegal workers’ by setting the appropriate mechanism and amending their conditions in accordance with the law.
- Most workers who find themselves in an undocumented status are forced into irregularity due to the Kafala system. Only the sponsor (employer) is allowed to renew visas or Qatar IDs, the penalty for not doing so falls on the worker. Companies frequently fail to process or renew the QID, forcing the workers into an irregular situation. Moreover, workers in exploitative and abusive work environments (particularly domestic workers) have no choice but to leave the employer, which also renders them irregular. It is critical to address the skewed power dynamics under the Kafala system, to understand the ‘phenomenon.’
When a worker whose transfer request has not been accepted and the original employer expresses unwillingness for the worker to return to work for him, the Ministry of the Interior should set up the appropriate mechanism so that the worker's employer is notified three days before the date of his departure by text message or via the Metrash application.
- It is not clear what the reasons are for requests to be denied, and what role the current employer plays in this.
Establish a permanent committee (with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Interior) at the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs to decide on all applications for sponsorship transfer.
- This committee, without any representation from workers themselves, would only result in more red tape and bureaucratic hurdles for workers to access their rights.
A broad reading of these recommendations suggests that the Shura Council is pushing for a retraction of the reforms, and maintaining the status quo where employers continue to wield great power over those they sponsor.
As MR had previously written, Qatar has brought in “relatively strong labour codes that provide minimum standards of working hours, rest periods, entitlements and wages. On paper. When these minimum standards are not met by the employer there is little or no accountability because workers do not have the wherewithal to tolerate even a little delay in delivery of justice. For the entire duration of the complaints process, migrants continue to be at the mercy of the employer they are complaining against.”
It is this very status quo that the Shura Council aspires to maintain.
The Qatar reforms were hard-fought, over years of global advocacy that included a complaint at the International Labour Organisation. This complaint was dropped and resulted in the three-year technical cooperation between the ILO and Qatar which will soon be extended. This cooperation had a two-fold effect: introducing international standards to local mechanisms and blunting the criticism against Qatar. With the World Cup less than two years away, Qatar’s back and forth with promises, announcements and retractions has delayed any positive impact on the working and living conditions of workers.