Qatar’s extended probation period increases domestic workers’ vulnerability
Plans to extend the probation period to nine months were announced last year, and the new regulations recently came into effect. But details remain unclear to domestic workers, who will be most affected by the changes.
Qatar’s Ministry of Labour announced that as of 8 January 2022, the probation period for domestic workers will increase from three months to nine months. The decision is an amendment to a ministerial decision that regulates recruitment agencies, and not the domestic workers law (see sidebar below).
As per the new regulation, during the first three months, the employer is entitled to a full refund of recruitment fees when they terminate a domestic worker’s contract. The extended probation period now allows employers of domestic workers to obtain a prorated refund during the additional six months, as well as the return of any government-incurred fees “if the worker refuses to work, runs away or has an illness with a chronic disease.” These conditions will not apply if the employer is found guilty of violating the contract or assaulting the worker.
A full text of the ministerial decision has not yet been made publicly available, despite the new terms already being in effect. But, troubling consequences for domestic workers can be foreseen. In MR’s previous engagement with employers and workers, both parties reported that agents forced workers to continue working for three months, the standard probation period, before leaving the household. Several complications arose from this dynamic – once the probation period expired, the employer lost out on a refund of recruitment fees, while the agency could re-deploy workers to another household, and unfairly profit from additional fees paid by the new employer; workers sometimes became undocumented, as they would leave once the visa process was completed; and workers who were returned to agencies faced mistreatment, including forced confinement in agency complexes until their new placement. Employers also leveraged the threat to return workers — and the potential loss of income entailed — to compel them to continue working in poor conditions.
Employers cite the high costs of recruiting a worker from overseas for these strict controls over domestic workers’ mobility. Recruitment fees could range from anywhere between QR8000 and QR 15000 (USD$2200-$4100), depending on the worker’s nationality. The extended probation seems to be in response to these complaints, but fails to address the vulnerability of the domestic workers in these situations. The potential for the reforms to positively impact domestic workers’ labour conditions seem to be a trade-off for much-needed improvements to the sector: the live-in model is inherently exploitative, and the burden of this extended probation, be it physical or fiscal, will likely be borne by the worker.
Commenting on this new regulation, a spokesperson for a domestic workers’ organisation said, “the initial reactions we have received from domestic worker groups based on what was published in the newspaper are fear that this new decision will give more power to the abusive employers on top of their disregard of employment contract provisions. Especially on the stated grounds for returning domestic workers to the agencies which can be easily manipulated by some employers which will affect the continuity of their employment and eventually put their end of service benefits at risk. This is potential for a rollback for what has been achieved so far in terms of domestic workers' rights.”
However, they noted that domestic workers were hopeful that recruitment agencies will now be forced to closely monitor the employment situation of new recruits from overseas in order to stop employers from cancelling contracts for the crucial nine months. But they are concerned about workers who renewed their contracts with the same employers and those who have transferred locally, and wondered if the agency will still be responsible for them.
The lack of clarity on the new regulations by those most affected by the new decision is telling — the ministry stated that this decision was taken following several consultative meetings with recruitment agents, but does not mention any discussions with domestic workers themselves.
While employers now have greater latitude to end contracts, domestic workers do not, and may now encounter more hurdles to job mobility. On paper, Qatar’s recent reforms removed the requirement for workers to obtain permission from employers to change jobs and allowed workers to change jobs at any point during their contract without incurring any penalties. If the job change occurs during the probation period, the new employer must compensate the old employer for expenses incurred for recruitment, but not exceeding one month of salary. This requirement does not apply after the probation period or if the worker has been recruited locally.
For domestic workers especially, actually changing jobs remained a difficult undertaking. The extended probation will likely create greater obstacles to employment mobility, tipping the scales of power between worker and employer further imbalance.
Official comments on the reforms make clear that employers’ rights are being prioritised at the expense of workers. In a statement, the Ministry commits to “relieving the burdens on the family in the Qatari society... arising from the breach of employment contracts or the runaway by domestic workers.” Though workers who “run away” most often do so because of poor working conditions, and even then generally as a last resort — when attempts to seek help or change jobs fail. That leaving one’s place of employment is construed as “running away” epitomizes the stranglehold of employers over domestic workers. Yet, employers are portrayed as victims to be safeguarded against the very conditions they create, conditions which are enabled by the legal system.
As Migrant-Rights.org reports frequently chronicle, domestic workers encounter a myriad of vulnerabilities due to the nature and conditions of their employment. While the cost of recruiting a worker from abroad is prohibitive for the employers, the solution to protecting their fiscal rights cannot stem from the restrictions of the basic rights of the domestic worker.
Image credit:Flickr/ Penny Wang