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Three years since sweeping reforms, workers in Qatar face evermore innovative obstacles

On August 30, 2023

This week marks three years since Qatar launched an ambitious and sweeping reforms agenda that was supposed to dismantle some of the most stringent elements of the Kafala system.

While these reforms were partly in response to international criticism and the imminent FIFA World Cup 2022, they were also about ensuring its labour market systems and institutions were up to scratch for the developments. The key reforms and changes to labour and immigration regulations included the removal of the exit permit, the establishment of a minimum wage, and freedom to change employers without sponsor’s permission. The last two were path-breaking for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. Kuwait was the only other country with a minimum wage that applied to migrant workers, and none of the other GCC states promised the kind of job mobility that Qatar did. More remarkably, these reforms applied equally to domestic workers, even if they were not included in the country’s labour laws. Reforms worthy of commendation. On paper.

Critiques and supporters both welcomed these reforms, even as some of them expressed fear that the reforms may suffer a setback once the World Cup ended. It did not take even that long for things to begin to unravel. Within months of rolling out the reforms, the business community and the Shura Council (one of the state’s legislative bodies, whose members are from prominent business families) pushed back with a vengeance. Ensuring basic labour rights for workers is often seen as a zero-sum game that somehow impinges on the rights of citizens and employers. These tensions have long made a rights-based discourse around migrant workers untenable in the region, and Qatar was no different even if it was in the harsh spotlight of international criticism and had a reputation to redeem.

The job change without a No Objection Certificate (NOC) was smooth in the initial months; so smooth that employers were blindsided by a large number of employees choosing to change jobs. It bears remembering that in the last quarter of 2020, many Covid-19 pandemic regulations were still in place, and the economy had barely recuperated. Businesses were unable to recruit workers from abroad without incurring high costs, and many employers that had made use of the force majeure regulations to reduce pay or put employees on furlough had to contend with a disgruntled workforce eager to embrace the new reforms and find better opportunities.

What followed was panic and pushback. Even as the economy was beginning to pick up, and deadlines to finish World Cup-related projects loomed, businesses had to contend with an employee turnover they were not used to. As we have previously reported, job change requests were rejected and job change approvals were rescinded by the ministry after interference from sponsors. When employers could not interfere in the process of applying for a job change, the absconding (huroob) laws were pressed into service and misused. Workers attempting to change jobs now had to run from pillar to post to either contest false absconding charges, or enquire why the job change request was rejected.

In its very first meeting of 2021, the Shura Council put forward recommendations that had the potential to completely overturn the reforms. While those recommendations were not implemented as amendments to laws, they still found favour by way of new processes. Most striking of which was the requirement for a signed resignation letter in order to process a job change. While domestic workers could also change jobs at any point of the contract, a separate regulation was introduced extending the probation period between recruitment agents and employers to nine months, which added another obstacle to domestic workers’ ability to change jobs at any time during the contract period. Additionally, any attempts to change employers could easily attract a runaway charge against workers, leading to their detention and deportation if they do not have the knowledge or means to challenge the accusation. Soon after the reforms were rolled out, several diplomatic missions of origin countries saw an uptick of female domestic workers leaving their employers and unable to change jobs as they were facing runaway charges. Employers could also shirk their obligation to pay end-of-service gratuity by claiming the worker had absconded.

Wage theft continues to be rampant, but policies, solutions, and mechanisms continue to be ineffective and inadequate. The ministry set up a Workers' Support and Insurance Fund, but there is no transparency in how payouts are decided and disbursed. An April 2022 ministerial decision put a cap on the maximum disbursement of financial entitlements: three months' salary or a maximum of QR20,000 for workers of an existing company; a maximum of QR12,000 if the company no longer exists; and a maximum of QR8,000 for domestic workers. Access to the fund is dependent on the dispute committee’s final decision or the court’s final judgement.

There had also been an increased recruitment of dispatch riders to work in the gig sector for food delivery and taxi services, to meet the needs of World Cup fans, and several instances of wage theft and abandonment have been recorded since. And there has been no movement towards regulating this sector.

Recruitment in the months preceding the World Cup had also become murkier. Prior to these reforms, Qatar had introduced the Qatar Visa Centres (QVC) in several origin countries. The QVCS provided the last mile of service in the recruitment process and intended to prevent contract substitution and complete most parts of the visa and work permit process before departure. However, in the year running up to the World Cup, project visas were introduced as part of the ‘Exceptional Entry Permit’ under the Supreme Committee for Crisis Management, which was established to manage ‘crises and disasters’ in 2020. The visas bypassed the minimal protections offered by QVCs, and workers who were expecting a standard 2-year contract found themselves terminated after three or six months, or when the project was completed. The shorter work term also meant they were not eligible for the end-of-service benefits, as per Qatar labour laws. Corruption has been rife both among project visas and other recruitment in the last couple of years, with workers paying millions in illegal recruitment fees.

With no threat to hosting the World Cup or any other meaningful penalty, Qatar made little attempt to make it easier for workers to realise the full benefits of the reforms. The World Cup was an undisputed success in terms of organisation, but towards the end of the tournament accusations of corruption plagued Qatar’s strongest ally in the workers’ rights movement, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which was also its harshest critic until, seemingly overnight, it began praising Qatar for abolishing the Kafala (see timeline). The allegations and investigations ceased to have any impact locally.

Fresh challenges

As was expected, right after the World Cup, there was a correction in the briefly buoyant economy. Businesses – particularly hospitality, maintenance and construction – once again laid off workers in large numbers. Yet, the population did not see a major dip. In October 2022, the population touched an all-time high of 3,020,080. In December 2022, the month of the tournament, the population was 2,909,134. Between March to May 2023, the population still hovered around the 3 million mark, suggesting that many workers did not return home

Migrant workers, origin country embassies and employers in Qatar that Migrant-Rights.Org spoke to all concede that it’s a difficult time for businesses, and that there are not enough jobs. But even the unemployed workers – across all categories of jobs – are reluctant to go back for multiple reasons. Primarily because many of them have not received their end-of-service benefits and parts of their due wages. For many, the opportunities in their home countries are not promising either.

Meanwhile, accessing the opportunities that do exist continues to be a task for many workers. Employers are seeking evermore innovative methods to stymie attempts to change jobs.  Increasingly, sponsors are co-opting facilities meant for workers. For instance, employers are now using the ‘Leave Country Notice’ option on the Ministry of Labour’s e-notice portal, to cancel Qatar Identification Document (QID) and force workers to leave the country. “The sponsor is weaponising this facility meant for workers,” one origin country diplomat complained. There is more confusion than clarity on how to challenge or navigate these newer processes. While employers can cancel their sponsorship online, the worker can only have it lifted by visiting the labour offices in person, according to officials MR spoke to. The e-notice portal, inexplicably, can be accessed only during official work hours, which compounds the restrictions workers face, as using their personal devices to file complaints during work hours would be especially risky.

Furthermore, Qatar has long promised f that it would link the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Labour systems to prevent employers from filing absconding charges against workers who have an active complaint. However, this integration is yet to be implemented, and workers still have to challenge the charge, in person, at the MoI’s search and follow-up department.

Several workers MR interviewed also say that they are being forced to leave the country and re-enter on the new visa, contrary to what the job mobility reform dictates. While some have managed to re-enter on new visas, others are unable to do so. This is mainly due to the trend that origin country embassies have also noted – newer visas are for a longer duration, up to five years even, even though normally job contracts are for two years. Unless both the contract is terminated and the visa has been cancelled, the new employer is unable to register the contract and apply for a new work permit. Many of these obstacles seem to mainly add a nuisance value to dissuade workers from attempting to change jobs.

Meanwhile, workers robbed of their due wages and victims of extreme labour exploitation who attempt to protest are harassed, detained, and deported; and collective bargaining and freedom of association does not seem achievable in the near term. So workers in distress are often dependent on informal support groups for survival and tide over periods of non-payment and unemployment in order to fight a case or find a new job.

While these ordeals may still be overcome with a little knowledge and support for migrant workers covered by the labour law, for domestic workers who live and work in extreme isolation these obstacles turn into impenetrable walls where the reforms have little or no impact. Their exclusion from the wage protection system makes it impossible to monitor minimum wage compliance, and the convoluted probation period (one for the worker and another for the recruitment agent) requires workers to take on both employer and recruitment agent to change jobs, making themselves vulnerable to absconding charge. Without complaint mechanisms that are designed to address their unique circumstances, access to justice for domestic workers continues to be almost impossible.

It is imperative that Qatar does not totally drop the ball on the momentum it has built over the last few years. The World Cup should leave a lasting legacy beyond just being the first tournament of this scale hosted in the Arab world; it should also include an earnest commitment to protecting the rights of over two million vulnerable and marginalised migrant workers who not only made the World Cup possible but are also the very foundation of Qatar’s future ambitions.