Qatar Announces Abolishment Of Kafala System For Migrant Workers

The UN employment rights agency, The International Labour Organization (ILO), recently stated they will be terminating Qatar’s Kafala system by January. This move is in response to criticism from human rights groups for the inhumane treatment of migrant workers, after news that the country would host the 2022 World Cup. The ILO has been involved with the Qatari government since 2017 in enacting reforms that target the increasing human rights violations against migrant workers who come to Qatar to find better financial opportunities. The ILO claimed they are also helping the government create the first non-discriminatory wage in the Middle East in order to combat the power imbalances between employers and employees, reported the Guardian.

Abdullah bin Nasir bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Prime Minister of Qatar tweeted this week that there would be a “reform of policies & legislation to improve workers’ welfare standards” and that Qatar holds “full commitment to the fundamental rights relating to labour”.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Global Issues, Stephen Cockburn said, “…We will be closely scrutinizing the details of this announcement and pushing for any positive measures to be quickly and fully implemented…Far too often workers have continued to face exploitation and abuse despite reforms intended to protect them. We hope this time will be different, and that Qatar can truly transform its labour laws to fully respect the rights of its migrant workers. This must also mean more rigorously enforcing its labour laws and holding abusive employers to account”.

Nicholas McGeehan, a human rights advocate in the Gulf, said that claims to reform labour laws should be met with “very cautious optimism” and that “urgent action is needed on heat stress in Qatar, and in the Gulf generally”.

I fully agree with Nicholas McGeehan’s point about cautious optimism. An Amnesty International report from September said that despite Qatar’s promises to enact liveable wages irrespective of one’s nationality, workers were still being paid approximately $44 a week. Last year, Qatar had also promised the abolishment of exit permits but has yet to act. I am glad that these violations are being looked at by human rights groups, but there is no doubt that these steps that Qatar claims to be taking to enact human rights will be slow and prolonged, if they do ever come into effect.

The Kafala system requires migrant workers to obtain a “sponsor”, usually an employer, who is responsible for the worker’s visa and accommodation upon arriving in the host country. Employers may take advantage of this dependency and exploit their workers by withholding their passports or wages and preventing them from returning to their home country. Moreover, employers often disregard labour standards and require their employees to work for prolonged periods in extreme heat or to live in dreadful conditions. This has been the primary system of labour in many Gulf and Levantine countries, due to the high number of migrant workers, predominantly from South Asia.

While this is good news, we should only celebrate this advancement when we see the promises being manifested. Qatar relies heavily on migrant labour, and the World Cup can either be the event needed to bring light to labour conditions in the Gulf or serve as another way to stall these changes.

Kerent Benjumea