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Qatar’s performance reports on labour law reforms raises concern of regressing on commitments

On December 4, 2023

Two reports with vastly different narratives on Qatar’s labour reforms were released late November, roughly one year since the FIFA 2022 kick off. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), which has a technical cooperation programme with Qatar, and Amnesty International both took stock of the current situation in the country. The former acknowledges certain limitations and setbacks, but by and large presents a positive performance report based on data furnished by the Ministry of Labour. Amnesty’s findings are grounded in workers’ testimonies and paint a far less optimistic picture, reflecting what Migrant-Rights.Org (MR) has also found in its investigations and research. 

The ILO report marks the end of its second phase of technical cooperation with Qatar that runs from July 2021 to December 2023. The cooperation began in 2018 and kickstarted a series of reforms focussing on four pillars: 

  • Labour market and labour migration governance
  • Enforcement of labour law and access to justice
  • Workers’ voice and social dialogue
  • International cooperation and exchange of experience

Working with Qatar’s Ministry of Labour (MoL), the ILO assisted Qatar in implementing a number of reforms including: restructuring the complaints process; introducing a national minimum wage; establishing a Wage Protection System to prevent wage theft, and dismantling the Kafala system to allow workers to change jobs without their sponsor’s permission. Much of these reforms remain words on paper, with workers facing innumerable barriers to realising them in practice, particularly in accessing justice mechanisms.

Below MR examines the ILO (and the Qatar government)’s findings against our research, Amnesty’s, and other organisations working in this field.

Pillar 1: Labour market and labour migration governance  

Data from the ILO report:

  • Labour mobility: Out of a total of 1,037,644 applications to change jobs between September 2020 and October 2023, 669,198 were approved and 364,053 were rejected. The average number of days required to complete an Employer Change application fell from 22 days in August 2021 to six days in August 2023.
  • Domestic workers: The number of domestic workers in Qatar in August 2023 was 304,784. In 2023, the International Domestic Workers Federation organised more than 20 information sessions and workshops with domestic workers. 

The ILO identified that a No Objection Certificate (NOC) still remains a requirement in practice, despite its abolition being one of the widely celebrated legal changes to the labour law. NOCs are documents provided by workers’ current employers which confirm the worker has the employer’s permission to change jobs. 

“Even though this is not required by law or by the Employment Change system, an NOC is still required for many job applications.” This de facto NOC system emerged within months of its official abolishment, as MR had reported in early 2021. Over two years later, no meaningful attempt has been made to correct this widespread practice.

MR recently supported a case involving a driver who had filed a case against his sponsor for withholding his salary for five months, and who was given written instructions by a MoL officer to get an NOC in order to be able to change his job. He was only able to get an NOC from his sponsor after he dropped the case. His is just one of several cases that MR has recorded, including a group of unpaid food delivery riders who were also unable to change jobs earlier this year. In Februrary 2023, Doha News, a local news outlet, similarly reported the testimonies of a group of Kenyan women who were still required to present an NOC in order for the MoL to approve their job change. 

It is easy for employers/sponsors to override reforms as significant power remains firmly entrenched with them, leaving the migrant worker vulnerable to all kinds of abuse, including wage theft and destitution.  

For example, Amnesty documented the use of QIDs (Qatar IDs or residency permit cards, that migrant workers are required to carry at all times) to control employees. Companies, acting as sponsors, hold the authority to cancel or deny workers’ residence permits. This power allows them to falsely report employees as “absconded,” potentially leading to their arrest and deportation, even for those trying to escape abuse.

The Ministry of Interior introduced changes in 2022 requiring employers who report an absconding case to provide additional data, including: the worker’s monthly salary or any unpaid dues owed to the worker or active labour complaint, the worker’s accommodation address, and information on any witness(es). However, as argued is our analysis of absconding laws, the law serves no purpose other than to create obstacles for workers, and these measures are just more paperwork. Qatar’s labour law already allows for disciplinary action against workers who do not show up for work. Criminalising this, as the absconding law does, only worsens migrant workers’ vulnerability. 

In terms of recruitment, Qatar has opened 14 Qatar Visa Centres in six countries of origin (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka) where applicants would not be charged any recruitment fees. These centres were set up as a remedy to unethical recruitment practices, including deception and extortive recruitment fees. The QVC, while effective in weeding out contract substitution, only provides last mile services in the job contract process, and does not play a role in the recruitment process where the majority of the corruption takes place. Prospective migrant workers still take out loans at predatorily high interest to pay these fees and are often met with wage theft, poor living standards, and lack of workplace safety at odds with the jobs initially promised to them.

In March 2023, the MoL revealed the names of four recruitment agencies whose licences were recently revoked. However, according to a Qatar News Agency press release, licences were revoked for a total of 23 agencies, the remainder of which remain unnamed. In July, the MoL and ILO completed an assessment of the system for licensing and monitoring private recruitment agencies; recommendations included expanding procedures to establish licensing standards and establish a set of auditable requirements to issue and renew licences to recruitment agencies. 

Pillar 2: Enforcement of labour law and access to justice

Data from the ILO report:

  • Wage Protection System: 69,806 companies registered to WPS
  • Access to Justice: Five Dispute Settlement Committees established
  • Labour Inspections: The Labour Inspection Department inspected 22,770 companies, 2,493 accommodation sites and 14,795 worksites.  
  • Heat Stress and Occupational Safety: 504 worksites were shut down due to non-compliance after a series of targeted inspections were carried out. A unified database for occupational injuries in Qatar was created. 

MR and Amnesty both found that grievance mechanisms often failed to uphold workers’ statutory rights. Moreover, domestic workers continue to be excluded from key mechanisms such as the WPS and labour inspections. The WPS system does not automatically initiate a complaint against defaulting employers, and it is the up to the affected workers to file a complaint. Additionally, as an earlier MR review (in August 2023, to mark the 3-year anniversary of the reforms) noted, several new obstacles have been introduced that render the reforms ineffective

When a worker initiates a complaint, the first step is arbitration, in which a third party (an official within the Ministry of Labour) makes a decision based on the dispute filed between the employee and their sponsor, which is usually a negotiation of terms of compromise. If the complaint is unresolved, they can approach the Dispute Settlement Committees (DSC) which operate as a court of law. In cases where the worker is challenging a non-dismissal disciplinary action, the DSC does not play a role. 

The number of DSCs within the country increased from three to five in October 2022 though, as per workers’ testimony and comments from officials, only two or three of the committees were in operation for several months into 2023. Both Amnesty and the ILO noted that claims covered by the DSCs mostly involved wage theft, annual leave compensation, and unpaid end-of-service benefits, but did not include cases pertaining to payment of recruitment fees or work-related deaths and injuries.

In 2019, the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund was established to pay workers who won cases of wage theft when their companies fail to or are unable to do so. Access to the fund is restricted by the presiding court official. Based on our observations, court officials often coerce the workers into either settling their case or fighting it from their country of destination. 

An April 2022 ministerial decision put a cap on the maximum disbursement of financial entitlements from the fund: 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.  

Of the QR2.3 billion already distributed  through the fund until August 2023, only about half was to 70,000 migrant workers. “The other half was transmitted through the Fund from entities and companies to pay salaries and wages. The vast majority of payments coming from or through the Fund go to companies that have limited liquidity, the aim being to support the completion of the relevant projects or operations.”

There is scant transparency regarding the fund’s use and eligibility criteria, and the latest data suggests that the focus is on completing projects more than tackling wage theft or holding employers accountable. Furthermore, all legal documentation and procedures are in Arabic, so migrant workers (who hope to benefit from the fund or other complaints processes) are completely reliant on the interpretations provided to them by the government.

The ILO report did not address the practical obstacles that workers face when trying to escape from workplace abuse, including finding temporary accommodation and covering daily expenses for food and transportation while filing a report, especially when they have faced wage theft.

For example, there is no shelter available to workers, who often live in employer-provided accommodation. Though Ministry of Labour and Qatar Red Crescent Society Humanitarian Care House for victims of trafficking operates in Abu Hamour, admission is only provided on a referral basis through government entities. Based on the cases that MR has dealt with, the shelter’s support extends to providing accommodation, food, and transportation to attend complaints or court hearings, but there is no legal aid or guidance provided.  

The report also neglects a key cause of wage theft in Qatar, as highlighted by Amnesty’s report. When clients (including the government) delay payments to contractors, there is a significant cash-flow concern. This leads to a domino effect delaying and underpaying subcontractors and, ultimately, workers.  

Amnesty and Fairsquare’s Vital Signs project have also highlighted Qatar’s reluctance to improve the investigation of workers’ deaths, and the role of heat stress in such deaths.

Pillar 3: Workers’ voice and social dialogue

Data from the ILO report:

  • Social Dialogue: 72 joint committees at the enterprise level, with 578 elected worker representatives for more than 29,000 employees. ILO is working on making joint committees mandatory for private enterprises with more than 100 employees for phase 3 of the technical programme. 

The Joint Committee initiative introduced by the ILO in response to this pillar continues to be voluntary in nature, and lacks teeth in terms of collective bargaining power and organising. Even though Qatar has agreements with various global unions, whose representatives function as community liaison officers on the ground, unionising is still illegal. In the absence of the right to collectively organise, the Joint Committees offer an inadequate substitute.

Joint committees are a means of delivering complaints to the employer, and its formation is dependent on the company’s approval. Workers cannot negotiate better pay or contract through the committee. Additionally, it serves a very small portion of migrant workers and excludes domestic workers entirely. As MR has previously reported, workers remain without a recognised voice and, dependent on apolitical gatekeepers

Even as the spotlight on Qatar dims, it is critical to sustain the momentum of this reformative period to better protect the human rights of labour migrants. Currently, migrant workers still remain vulnerable to trafficking, financial abuse, and labour exploitation. The ILO’s ongoing partnership with Qatar must involve greeted accountability, and not be limited to ensuring labour standards are met on paper alone.

MR Recommendations

For workers to benefit fully from the reforms, and all migrant workers to be protected from labour exploitation, Migrant-Rights.Org puts forward the following recommendations:

  • Delink work visas from residence visas, allowing individual to renew their residence visas independently
  • Abolish the absconding laws
  • Ensure businesses with a history of exploitation are not rewarded with new contracts
  • Strengthen the Wage Protection System (WPS) to take immediate action against defaulting employers
  • Include domestic workers in the labour law, and until then, ensure that the WPS and labour inspections are also extended to this sector
  • Expand Qatar Visa Centres to all origin countries
  • Extend QVCs operation to including vetting recruitment agents in origin countries
  • Study emerging and non-traditional employment models such as the gig sector (platform workers), and introduce legal protections for them