In Review: New Migrant Labor Reforms in Qatar
By Maya Garner
As Qatar has announced new labor reforms ahead of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) stated that the reforms “effectively dismantle” the country’s Kafala sponsorship system and mark a new era for Qatar’s labor market. Meanwhile, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have taken a critical stance toward the reforms, labeling them a “step in the right direction” for migrant labor rights, and stressed the importance of implementing the new laws.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states have all made use of some version of a Kafala system, which ties migrant workers’ legal status in the country to their employment contracts, designating employers as “sponsors.” The Kafala system has been a main factor of systemic labor exploitation in GCC countries where migrant workers make up large percentages of the population. Delayed and unpaid wages are common issues facing migrant workers in the Gulf region, as well as the confiscation of passports and a lack of ability for workers to stand up to abusive employers. As GCC member states are moving toward increasingly service-oriented economies, there is corresponding dependence on migrant labor as well as incentives to increase their international appeal. This also applies to Qatar, which is due to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, providing a significant economic opportunity for the country. In response, Qatar has shown historic incentive to combat systemic violations of labor rights in the country.
Qatar’s new reforms makes it the first GCC country to allow migrant workers to change jobs without their employers’ permission. The country also set a monthly minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyal, making it the second GCC country to introduce a minimum wage for migrant workers, after Kuwait. The ILO’s assessment of Qatar dismantling of the Kafala system refers to the new reforms, namely Laws No. 17-19, which establish a minimum wage, remove the need to obtain a “No Objection Certificate” from the employer, and provide clarity in terminating an employment contract through providing a written 1-month notice, or a 2-month notice if the employee has been working for the same employer for more than a two-year period. Furthermore, these laws extend to those who would not otherwise be included in the labor law system, such as domestic workers. However, the legal ability to change jobs without the employer’s permission is not the be-all and end-all of the Kafala system.
Amnesty International commented that “full implementation [of the new laws] remains key if the country aims to truly end labour exploitation.” Human Rights Watch stated that the successes of the new reforms “will depend on how well the government enforces and monitors them” and that “the test will be in how effectively the government carries them out and consistently applies them.” The organizations welcomed the reforms and the introduction of a 1,000 QAR minimum wage, recognizing that this change offers a wage-boost for the lowest-paid migrant workers. However, Amnesty International referred to a 2019 study by ILO, which has not been made public, but which allegedly recommended a monthly minimum wage of 1,250 QAR. The organizations also stressed the importance in ensuring that the standards for the minimum wage corresponds to an actual living wage for migrant workers. Furthermore, without close monitoring and implementation, the establishment of a minimum wage does not solve the common problem of unpaid of delayed wages. As an example, in June Amnesty International reported on 100 migrant workers who had taken on construction work on the FIFA “Al Bayt” stadium in Qatar without being paid on time, having faced up to seven months without pay. One may say that the new reforms now provide an opportunity for Qatar to show their commitment to combating labor abuses.
Amnesty International’s Head of Economic and Social Justice Steve Cockburn recommended that Qatar takes its new labor reforms a step further by decriminalizing “absconding,” which allows employers to bring criminal charges against migrant workers who leave without permission. Human Rights Watch joined in on this call and further recommended that the process of renewing residence permits takes place directly between the government and the migrant worker rather than going through the employer, or sponsor, as an intermediary. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch recommended that Qatar amend labor laws to allow migrant workers to form trade unions and allow for strike action. Another Human Rights Watch report from August 2020 highlighted that the issue of unpaid or delayed wages had persisted in Qatar despite government efforts to improve the situation. The report considered the Kafala system to be “at the heart of migrant worker abuse” and listed the issues of deceptive recruitment practices leading to debt bondage, disruptions in the supply chain, and an ineffective “wage protection” system, as well as individual issues such as passport confiscation.
The Kafala system is made up of many components in Qatar’s society, legal system, and labor market. Each component needs to be addressed individually to ensure effective reform, paving the way forward toward constructing an economic system based around labor rights. Unlike ILO’s assertion, the Kafala system exists as a spectrum of employers’ control over migrant employees, as a nuanced set of systemic labor rights protections or infringements. As Qatar has committed to abolishing the Kafala system and has introduced new reforms, the country’s upcoming successes and challenges in protecting labor rights will serve as a pointer to other GCC countries who have not yet moved to make similar reforms. In light of the recommendations posed by prominent human rights organizations, it is crucial for Qatar to demonstrate that the new reforms are not merely cosmetic changes but will be followed by effective implementation and monitoring and lay the foundation for a rights-based labor system in the country. Qatar is simultaneously leading the way forward and serving as an example for other GCC countries.