Qatar abolishes controversial 'kafala' labor system

Published 13.12.2016 00:00
Updated 13.12.2016 15:57
Migrant workers are seen walking next to a construction site in the Qatari capital Doha on December 6, 2016. AFP Photo
Migrant workers are seen walking next to a construction site in the Qatari capital Doha on December 6, 2016. (AFP Photo)

Qatar on Monday formally announced the end of its controversial "kafala" system, the biggest ever labor reform undertaken by the host of the 2022 football World Cup. In a long-expected announcement, Labor Minister Issa bin Saad al-Jafali al-Nuaimi said the "kafala" rules would be abolished from Dec. 13. He said a contract-based system to govern the gas-rich Gulf emirate's 2.1 million foreign workers would take its place. Under "kafala," all foreign workers working in Qatar require a local sponsor, in the form of an individual or company, and need their permission to switch jobs or leave the country.

"The new law is the latest step toward improving and protecting the rights of every expatriate worker in Qatar," Nuaimi said.

"It replaces the kafala system with a modernized, contract-based system that safeguards workers' rights and increases job flexibility."

Freedom of movement is guaranteed under the new rules, said Qatari officials, including giving workers the right to change jobs. Any workers mistreated will automatically be allowed to change jobs, said officials. The exit visa formally needed to leave the country under "kafala" will be abolished, although workers will still need their employers' permission to go home. An appeals committee has been established for expats who are denied permission to leave, and that committee has begun work yesterday. Employers who confiscate workers' passports could be fined 25,000 riyals ($6,800, 6,400 euros), up from 10,000 riyals under "kafala."

The new law should also offer greater contract protection, officials said. Many migrant workers, especially those in the construction sector, complain they are enticed to Qatar on contracts that claim they will earn far more than they end up receiving.

Official figures show more than 6,000 complaints were lodged against employers last year. The changes, known formally as Law No. 21 of 2015, were first announced by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani last year. Nuaimi on Monday urged critics to give the new rules time to take effect.

"We welcome any comment or constructive criticism, and will continue to do so in the future," he said.

"However, we urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action."

But rights group Amnesty International, which earlier this year accused Qatar of "forced labor," immediately said in a report that the reforms would not "scratch the surface."

"This new law may get rid of the word 'sponsorship' but it leaves the same basic system intact," warned Amnesty's James Lynch.

A government statement rejected the Amnesty report, saying it remained "committed to the development of a labor system that is fair to both employers and employees alike" and the change would ensure workers' rights are respected.

"We will continue to review and adapt our laws to ensure our approach to reform is fit for the purpose," it said.

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