Updated with quotes from Human Rights Watch.
Qatar’s government has proposed making it easier for expats to leave the country and change jobs, but has stopped short of abolishing a system of exit visas and no-objection certificates for its foreign workforce.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs held a highly anticipated press conference this afternoon to release what it billed as “wide-ranging labour market reforms.”
“We want to provide more protection to the expat community and (all) workers in this country, to provide them with more protection and safeguard their rights,” said Salih Saeed Al-Sahwi, MOLSA’s manager of labor relations, according to the official translation.
Actual changes, however, appear to be some time away. Today’s announcement represents the “first step” in changing Qatar’s labor laws, as proposals supported by the executive branch of government must still be circulated to the country’s Chamber of Commerce and approved by the Advisory (Shura) Council.
The current exit permit system largely requires foreign workers to get their employer’s consent to leave the country. Officials today proposed shifting this process to an automated system run by the Ministry of Interior.
Expats would apply for a permit at least 72 hours prior to departure. It would then be up to their employer to argue why the individual should not be allowed to leave the country, such as criminal or financial wrongdoing. Any objections would then be reviewed by a special committee.
Travel applications for emergencies would be flagged and dealt with separately, an official told Doha News.
Some employers in Qatar have previously argued that the exit permit system is needed to prevent foreign workers from fleeing the country after taking out loans that the sponsor is liable to cover.
The government appears to have undermined that argument by proposing that employers no longer be financially responsible for their employees. Instead, financial obligations incurred by foreign workers will be governed by the country’s civil and commercial laws.
Currently, expats require a no-objection certificate from their employers before they can change sponsors and take up a new job in Qatar. Alternatively, they can leave the country for two years before taking up a new position.
Under the government’s new proposals, employees who sign a fixed-term contract would be free to transfer to a new employer at the end of their contract.
However, those who sign an indefinite contract would have to work for their employer for five years before being allowed to change positions.
If foreign workers want to change jobs earlier, they would still need the permission of their employer.
Other key points of the reform package include:
- Increasing the penalty for confiscating a worker’s travel documents from a maximum of QR10,000 to up to QR50,000 per passport;
- Distributing a “model contract” that employers must follow in principle when drafting employment agreements;
- Requiring wages to be paid electronically to ensure wages are deposited into a worker’s bank account on time;
- Enforcing a new accommodation standard for workers’ housing. No details of those standards were provided; and
- Formulating harsher penalties for labor law violations, such as late payment of wages and violations of the new accommodations standards.
Officials said the changes would cover all foreign employees in Qatar when asked if the proposals included domestic workers, who are not currently covered by the country’s labor laws.
A suggestion that a minimum wage might be included was rejected by Al-Sahwi, who said salaries would be based on the forces of supply and demand.
However, in response to another question, Ali Ahmad Al-Khulaifi – the planning and quality department director at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs – opened the door to ending the prohibition on workers joining trade unions.
“We believe in the right of workers to have trade unions and their own associations,” he said in Arabic. However, he hedged his comments by arguing that the labor market in Qatar – which is overwhelmingly made up of foreigners – is different from other countries, meaning any such changes regarding trade unions required further study and consultations.
Officials at Wednesday’s press conference repeatedly said that the kafala system would be eliminated, starting by changing the name of the law to one governing the “entry, residence and exit of expatriate workers.”
While the the practical implications are unclear, it appears the intent is to give more weight to the contract between employers and employees alongside more state oversight and regulation.
A statement handed out to reporters was titled, “Qatar abolishes kafala” – a claim quickly panned by critics.
Nick McGeehan, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, called the statement “utterly misleading.
“The claim that they’ve abolished kafala is an attempt to garner praise for a step that they have manifestly not taken.”
Not mentioned during today’s briefing was the 135-page report the government received from international law firm DLA Piper on the living and working conditions of the country’s blue-collar workforce.
The state-run Qatar News Agency had said the report would only be made public after the government had reviewed its findings and evaluated the feasibility of its recommendations.
McGeehan has reviewed the DLA Piper report and said it is not clear how today’s announcement relates to the more than 60 recommendations it contains.
For example, DLA Piper recommended a full phase-out of the exit permit system – not transferring more powers to the government, according to McGeehan.
“(Qatar’s) response has been garbled and confusing,” he told Doha News.
McGeehan added that the DLA Piper report calls for measures such as performing more autopsies or post-mortem examinations following unexplained deaths as well as an independent study on migrant deaths attributable to cardiac arrest to determine how and why otherwise healthy laborers are dying.
Other recommendations are more closely tied to the country’s labor laws. McGeehan said these include abolishing court fees when filing labor court cases – often cited as a barrier to justice for low-income workers – as well as having the state cover repatriation costs and end-of-service gratuities and recoup those expenses from problematic employers.
“It’s difficult to square (today’s) press release with the very clear and concise recommendations of the DLA Piper report,” McGeehan said.
“I don’t want to be too critical today … If today is the absolute and final response, it falls so short that it can’t possibly be. There must be more.”