Has the Qatari government ‘abolished’ the Kafala system?

By Katharine Bryant

In recent news, the Qatari government has made the announcement that it has abolished Kafala, the exploitative labour system used throughout the Middle East. It effectively ties employees to their employers without the opportunity to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission. Those who do not seek permission can face deportation or arrest. Reports suggest that construction workers have died because of appalling working conditions in the construction of the World Cup stadiums, while domestic workers working in private homes are particularly vulnerable to horrendous physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

Abolishing Kafala is promising news and the culmination of recent steps to reform the system. Qatar has taken steps since the beginning of 2015 to address the abuse of migrant workers. In February 2015, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani approved major labour law reform to ensure migrant workers were paid through direct bank transfers. There has been mixed uptake of this initiative between the broad adoption of direct bank transfers and the persistence of late and unpaid wages, predominately as a result of falling oil prices.

Reforms in October 2015 went further and replaced the word ‘sponsors’ with ‘recruiters’ in legislation, but still left elements of Kafala in place. Migrant workers still had to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ to be able to transfer legally to a new employer. Employees also had to obtain an exit permit from their employer to leave the country. These reforms did not, however, apply to domestic workers.

The announcement reported globally this week goes even further, stating that the labour sponsorship system has been abolished and replaced with a new contract-based law, which will provide greater flexibility and protection. The law imposes a fine of 25,000 Qatari riyals (USD 6,800) on employers who confiscate workers’ passports. Freedom of movement is guaranteed, including the ability to leave the country –  if their employer allows – and the automatic right to change jobs for any workers who have been mistreated. It is unclear if those who are mistreated would be able to access available protections without first asking their employer to leave. Those on fixed term contracts would be free to change jobs at the end of their contract, while those on rolling contract would be free to move if they have completed five years of service. Any employee, whose employer rejects a leave request, can appeal to the Exit Permit Grievances Committee, which must respond to requests within three days. The applicant can leave the country unless he is wanted in connection to active criminal proceedings, or has defaulted on any debt in Qatar.

Human rights groups have already stated that these changes only scratch the surface, and that the Kafala system remains in place in all but name. It is unclear if these reforms apply to domestic workers, while some of the fundamental issues with Kafala still appear to be present – the inability to leave the country without permission, or being tied to one employer, albeit for a fixed duration of time, for example.

While an important step in the right direction, it is important that elements of the same abusive system do not become engrained through a system of contract rather than visas. We’ll know, for example, that the new complaints mechanism is working if there is full transparency regarding its operations, such as the number of complaints received. We’ll also know that the provision against passport retention is being implemented when a company is fined for withholding passports. Businesses working in Qatar should call on the Government to establish a labour system that truly allows free movement, and does not build in risks of exploitation for vulnerable workers.