A final draft law amending Qatar’s controversial kafala sponsorship system is expected to be complete by the end of this year, the government has said in its first official announcement of a timeline for the long-discussed changes.
The official update appears to attempt to allay fears that progress on the reforms were at risk of stalling following reports last week that the country’s Advisory (Shura) Council had reservations about the proposed legislation.
The official media statement by the chief of the recently-formed Government Communications Office, Saif Al-Thani, outlines the legislative process in Qatar to counter claims which previously circulated in the local and international media that the reform process had hit a “setback.”
Following the initial announcement of reforms in May 2014, the proposed changes were discussed with Qatar’s influential business community. While the Chamber of Commerce signalled that it would back the reforms last October, consultations actually appeared to stretch into the new year.
The first iteration of the reforms was then drawn up by the Council of Ministers, Qatar’s “supreme executive authority.” As part of the legislative process, all draft laws are then sent to the Shura Council for review and recommendation, which was done earlier this month.
The advisory body, comprising 30 Qatari nationals, can submit proposals to amend the draft law back to the Council of Ministers, which then discusses the proposals with the relevant ministries and ministers who will be responsible for implementing it.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al-Thani met with Shura Council members to discuss their recommendations and concerns.
However, the Government Communications Office noted that the Shura Council “has no further influence on the proposed legislation” now that they’ve tabled their feedback.
“The Council of Ministers will now prepare the final draft of the kafala reform legislation, which is expected to be completed before the end of 2015,” it adds.
Qatar’s kafala system has attracted considerable criticism from foreign media and human rights’ organizations in recent years for leaving expats vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous employers.
The country’s officials have long promised reforms and finally introduced its proposals last year.
Since then, government officials have stopped short of giving a firm timeline of when the changes will come into effect.
The state’s Labor Minister came the closest in a media interview last month.
“I hope it will be prior to the year end. We discussed it, our stakeholders have looked at it… Now it is on track. I am 90 percent hopeful or believe that it will be (brought in before the year end),” Dr. Abdullah bin Saleh Al Khulaifi, the Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, was quoted by AFP at the time as saying.
The reforms were initially aimed at making it easier for expats to change jobs and leave the country. However, they stopped short of removing the controversial exit permit system, which requires most expats to obtain their sponsor’s permission before they can leave the country.
Last week’s Shura Council meeting provided the first public glimpse at the actual provisions in the draft legislation. In some cases, it appeared that some provisions would actually tighten restrictions on foreign workers rather than giving them more freedom.
For example, workers could be punished if they “deliberately create problems” for their employers by having the qualifying period for a no-objection certificate doubled, Al Raya reported at the time.
Comprising 50 articles which are sectioned into 10 chapters, the draft law also includes provisions such as only being allowing expats to change jobs after completing a fixed-term contract, or after five years in the case of an open contract. Any job switches would have to be signed off by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs
Additionally, the Shura Council made several proposals of its own, such as banning an expat employee from changing jobs more than twice and underlining the right of employers to return workers hired under fixed-term contracts to their home countries once a project is completed.
In the latest statement, the government concedes that “much more needs to be done” to improve workers’ rights and labor practices in Qatar.
“In the months ahead, the government will be looking at further reforms to labor practices in our country,” it said, adding that among the areas set for change will be the “dishonest” recruitment practices for bringing mostly unskilled and semi-skilled workers to the country.
Rogue recruitment agencies have previously been highlighted as a problem. Last July, the government said it would publicly name and shame Qatar-based companies which break the labor law by charging huge recruitment fees, for example.
These often amount to thousands of dollars, which workers usually borrow which puts them in huge debt before they arrive in the state.
Under this burden, exploited workers are often unwilling or afraid to speak up when their passports are seized or they are made to work for less than initially agreed, according to a Qatar Foundation-backed report on the issue which was published in July last year.