Qatar has endorsed a new law to establish a non-discriminatory minimum wage, the first in the Middle East, as part of its steps in abolishing the controversial Kafala system, on Wednesday.
Started in the 1950s, the Kafala (Sponsorship) System regulates the relationship between employers and migrant workers in many countries in West Asia. And under the Kafala system, a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (Kafeel) for their contract period.
It means that the migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the Kafeel. The worker remains tied to his Kafeel throughout their stay.
On Wednesday, the Council of Ministers of Qatar unanimously endorsed new legislation allowing workers to change employers freely. Workers in Qatar had previously required a no-objection certificate (NOC) from their employer in order to do so.
And a decree by the Minister of Interior was also signed, removing exit permit requirements for all workers, except military personnel.
Together, these steps, in effect, mark the end of Kafala in the country, which will host the Fifa World Cup in 2022.
“When implemented, these reforms are going to be a blessing for almost all migrant workers. Currently, the requirement of NOC is keeping us bonded to the employer. It is like slavery. Whatever be the exploitative working conditions, we have to adjust. If we rub employers the wrong way, then he can deny NOC, which will ruin our chances to join a new company even if the offer is good,” Suresh S, an Indian worker in an electronics retail shop in Doha, told The Lede.
On the removal of Exit Permit, Suresh said that he is a victim of the Exit Permit system.
“Two years ago, when my father was unwell, I had to fly to India urgently. But my sponsor was not in Doha and without his signature on the Exit Permit, I will not be allowed to leave the country. I had to wait for two days for his return. And those two tensed days, I won’t forget in my life. Luckily, nothing bad happened to my father,” Suresh added.
There are around 700,000 Indian migrant workers in Qatar and the total population in Qatar is around 2.7 million.
Welcoming the reforms, Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation, said that Qatar’ steps to abolish Kafala will greatly support the rights of migrant workers, while contributing to a more efficient and productive economy.
“I am pleased that the ongoing ILO technical cooperation programme in Qatar is tangibly contributing to the government’s effort to advance social justice and promote decent work in the country,” Ryder added.
NOC, Exit Permit, Minimum Wages
According to the new steps, the elimination of the NOC requirement will allow workers to freely change employers following an initial probationary period. Should they wish to change employers during this period, the new employer would need to reimburse recruitment costs to the original employer.
And the decision on exit permits means that domestic workers, workers in government and public institutions, workers employed at sea and in agriculture, as well as casual workers are free to leave the country either temporarily or permanently without having to obtain the permission of their employers.
Meanwhile, the establishment of a non-discriminatory minimum wage that applies to all nationalities and all sectors will guarantee a minimum level of protection for all workers.
“Qatar is changing. The new tranche of laws will bring an end to Kafala and put in place a modern industrial relations system. We recognise that a new evidence-based minimum wage rate will ensure dignity for migrant workers.
We urge the government to announce this as quickly as possible. The partnership between the Qatar Government and the ILO, supported by the ITUC, is working to change lives,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
By 2020 January
The respective draft laws will now be referred to the Advisory (Shura) Council, and subsequently for the approval and signature of the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
The legislation is expected to come into force by January 2020.
These reforms are part of the ILO-ADLSA cooperation agreement signed in 2017, which resulted in the opening of an ILO Project Office in Doha in April 2018.
With less than four years until the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in front of 86,000 fans at the Lusail Stadium, and millions watching across the world, Qatar’s record on migrant workers’ rights remain firmly in the spotlight.
While Qatar has finally begun a high-profile reform process promising to tackle widespread labour exploitation and “align its laws and practices with international labour standards”, workers still continue to be vulnerable to serious abuses including forced labour and restrictions on freedom of movement.
According to a parliament document, 1459 Indians have registered their complaints with the Indian embassy between 01 January and June 30 this year.
Most of the complaints received from and on behalf of Indian workers are regarding non-payment of salaries and denial of legitimate labour rights and benefits such as non-issuance/renewal of residence permits, non-payment/grant of overtime allowance, weekly holidays, longer working hours, refusal to grant exit/re–entry permits for visit to India, refusal to allow the worker on final exit visa after completion of their contracts and non-provision of medical and insurance facilities, not being paid compensation upon death, among others.