Over the last few years, the State of Qatar has come under increasing criticism from a wide range of human rights organisations and even the United Nations over alleged human rights abuses and a lack of rights for the country’s predominantly foreign workforce. In particular, the so-called ‘kafala’ sponsorship system imposed conditions that many observers found unacceptable.
In 2016, Qatar first announced plans to change the kafala system although critics said the fundamental problems still existed – foreign workers could have their passports taken off them and employers could refuse permission for expats to leave the small Persian Gulf country by denying an all-important exit permit.
While foreign executives in senior roles never really encountered a problem with the system, the large expat communities of construction workers from the Indian sub-continent and mainly Filipino domestic workers often faced harsh working conditions and were denied permission to leave Qatar even for a short holiday.
The kafala system also extended to other foreign work groups – including cabin crew at the State-run airline Qatar Airways. The carrier has faced extensive criticism over the rights it affords it expat community of cabin crew – many of whom come from South East Asia and Eastern Europe.
In the last few days, however, the Emir of Qatar has announced a radical new law which will overhaul employment rights and give most foreign workers the right to leave the country at any time. The International Labor Organization which opened an office in Doha earlier this year said the move would mark a “significant step in upholding the fundamental rights of migrant workers in Qatar.”
“The ILO welcomes the enactment of Law No. 13, which will have a direct and positive impact on the lives of migrant workers in Qatar,” explained Houtan Homayounpour, who leads the ILO’s office in Qatar.
“This first step towards full suppression of exit permits is a clear sign of commitment by the Government of Qatar to labour reforms and a key milestone in the process.”
Homayounpour continued: “The ILO will continue to work closely with the government of Qatar on these reforms.”
Employers may still apply to Qatar’s Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs for an exemption for some workers where a “no objection certificate” would still be needed – but justification based on the nature of the employers work would be required and as an extra safeguard, only 5% of a company’s workforce can be covered by the exemption.
The non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch recently congratulated Qatar on introducing a number of human rights reforms which will set some of the “most progressive human rights standards in the Gulf region.” HRW says Qatar’s reforms have been spurred on by a Saudi-led blockade against the country which was imposed in June last year.
“Qatar could have retrenched into authoritarianism in the face of a political crisis but instead has responded to a breakdown in neighbourly relations by raising the bar on human rights standards in the Gulf,” commented Belkis Wille, a senior Qatar researcher at HRW.
In a significant development for domestic workers, a new law guarantees a maximum 10-hour work day, at least one rest day per week, three weeks of annual leave, as well as healthcare provision and an end of service payment. Qatar currently has over 173,000 domestic workers.
In other news, Qatar has for the first time made permanent residence available to a select number of foreigners.
However, some 1.6 million expats will still need permission from their employer to change jobs within Qatar and the country is still a far way off allowing any form of unionisation. Protests are outlawed and the media is still heavily censored. Workers can also still face dismissal with little or no explanation.
Earlier this year, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker addressed a transportation committee of the European Commission over allegations cabin crew at the airline faced harsh working conditions. Baker dimissed the complaints and said the airline was working to improve conditions for its cabin crew community.