Qatar is still committed to reforming its controversial sponsorship (kafala) system, but it remains unclear when those changes will actually be implemented, a senior government official has said.
Speaking at an event yesterday, Labor Minister Abdullah bin Saleh Al Khulaifi – who promised that reforms would be implemented “as quickly as possible” last July – told attendees at the Diplomatic Institute at the Foreign Ministry that there is no timetable to pass the new legislation.
The minister said the sponsorship law is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior and is being examined as part of the legislative process. With regards to the time frame of issuing the law, the minister said it is not possible to give a certain date. However, he added that Qatar is committed to introducing legal changes.
That message is a departure from the previous comments of other officials, who previously said changes were expected as early as late last year.
While that date has obviously passed, many have held out hope that the new legislation would be implemented by early 2015.
Even though there no substantial changes to Qatar’s kafala system have been made in the more than 10 months after reforms were first proposed, government officials frequently cite the planned legislative reforms as a way to deflect criticism of the country’s human rights record.
In a separate reform, Qatar’s Emir approved a law last month that makes it mandatory for employers to pay their workers by direct bank deposit. The change was introduced to make it easier for authorities to follow up on complaints by workers of late or non-payment of wages.
“We are on the right track to eliminate these violations,” Al Khulaifi said yesterday about abuses in the system.
The kafala system in Qatar and other Gulf countries governs the relationship between expats and their sponsors. It’s often blamed for enabling the abuse of foreign workers at the hands of their employers, who control an expat’s ability to live and work in Qatar.
Last May, officials from the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs held a highly anticipated press conference to unveil proposals that would make it easier for expats to leave the country and change jobs.
However, it stopped short of abolishing the system of exit permits and no-objection certificates.
A foreigner’s sponsor would still be able to apply to block an expat from leaving the country, and those who sign an open-ended contract would have to work in Qatar for five years before being able to freely change jobs.
Pushback from businesses
It is not clear what has stalled the legislation’s passage, though reluctance from the private sector may be playing a role.
In October, the proposed reforms appeared to clear a major hurdle after Qatar’s Chamber of Commerce said it would support the changes, provided that the law protects the interests of both workers and business owners.
Mohamed bin Ahmed Tawar Al Kuwari, the chamber’s vice-chairman, was quoted at the time as saying that he expected the reforms to be introduced by the end of 2014.
However, negotiations between the chamber and government officials appeared to stretch on into the new year.
In early January, the Peninsula reported that some business leaders were arguing for restrictions to be placed on engineers and senior employees working on mega-developments such as Msheireb, so that they could not change jobs midway through a project.
Speaking at a press conference last month, Human Rights Watch researcher Nick McGeehan suggested that the country’s “very influential business community” may be one reason for the delay in approving the reforms.
“Perhaps there has been an underestimation of the local opposition,” he told reporters.
He added that he sensed there was fear among some Qataris that changes to the sponsorship system could mean, for example, that their domestic workers would suddenly quit en masse or that the country’s economy would grind to a halt.
McGeehan suggested that the country’s leaders should have done a better job explaining the necessity and benefits of reforms.
“That message needs to come far more clearly from the top,” he said.