Qatar reforms wage payment plan for expat workers

Qatar, building for the 2022 World Cup, moves toward labor reform with lessons to learn from Bahrain.

al-monitor Workers clean up at the Villaggio shopping mall in Doha, May 29, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad.

Topics covered

salaries, qatar, migrant workers, gulf states, gulf politics

May 1, 2014

Qatar chose international Labor Day, May 1, to make the announcement: After months of sharp criticism of workers’ rights, Doha is implementing its first reforms while it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament. In an effort to stem the withholding of wages, Qatar announced that employers would be required to pay workers through direct deposit to their bank accounts.

The reforms will be welcome news to many workers who receive their salaries in cash. But broader changes to the so-called kafala system that governs expatriates in Qatar and across the Gulf may take years to bring about — even if laws are rewritten. The system, deeply entrenched in business, society, and the very populations of the Gulf, will be difficult to untangle.

The case of Bahrain is a telling example. A decade ago, the Labor Ministry began loosening some of the most restrictive measures governing foreign labor and increasing regulations on those who would exploit them. Most recently, the country has just begun imposing new rules meant to limit abuse among recruitment agencies.

Despite progress, however, workers’ rights groups — as well as the former labor minister who began the reforms — say that abuses continue to dog the kafala system.

“In general, the Gulf states, they don’t treat expat workers nicely,” Majeed Mohsen Al Alawi, former Bahraini labor minister, told Al-Monitor. “I think there need to be regulations, there needs to be education and there need to be media campaigns. You need to change the culture — the whole attitude of Gulf locals toward expats needs changing.”

The kafala system is used across the Gulf Cooperation Council to regulate the millions of foreign workers who live and work here, filling key labor gaps from construction workers and plumbers to top executives and engineers. Nearly 90% of Qatari residents are non-nationals, for example. While the details vary between countries, the outlines of the kafala are the same: Visas require sponsors, who have broad power to determine the terms of a person’s stay.

Part of the difficulty of the kafala system is that it was never intended to absorb such an influx of migrants. The arrangement arose from a tradition of hospitality: Whoever invited you to the Gulf would be responsible — to you and to his community — for your stay. “It was not necessarily exploitative, but it was the state taking a back seat on labor,” Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor.

Yet as locals and their businesses expanded, sponsoring millions of workers, the intimate, trust-based system took on a different tone, as employers relied on the system to maintain control over their workforce.

In Qatar, one of the most common cited complaints, for example, is that workers cannot change jobs without a “letter of no objection” from their current employer. If the company refuses and the worker absconds, “they lose their residence permit and risk fines, imprisonment and deportation,” according to an April 23 report from the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, who visited Qatar in November. This dependence on the employer — one of the most frequently criticized — can “amount to forced labor,” Crepeau concluded.

This provision — one which rights advocates say Qatar should ax — was previously loosened in Bahrain. “Any expat that comes here, he is not tied to the sponsor here in Bahrain. He can actually change employers even if the first employer does not agree,” Alawi said.

Yet few seem to take advantage of the rules. The latest government statistics indicate that just 1% percent of the transfer visas in the final quarter of 2013 were given to workers leaving their jobs without a letter of no objection.

The gap between the letter of the law and reality is partly one of information, on the part of both workers and authorities. Marietta Dias, chairwoman of Bahrain’s Migrant Workers Protection Society, sees hundreds of cases of domestic workers in just this situation each year, she told Al-Monitor. While working in the home, domestic workers subject to abuse or withheld salaries have no way of making their complaints known. Authorities, meanwhile, may not be ready or trained to investigate the alleged abuse.

“When and how are they going to complain?” she asks. “The few who have the courage to go to the authorities, they are getting better, but usually they [the authorities] would call the sponsor and give them back to them.”

A first step could be expanding the number of inspectors to ensure that employers comply with the rules. In Qatar, a survey of expatriate workers released in 2013, for example, found that 90% of low-skilled workers had their passports confiscated by employers, an offense that should be easy to fix. Qatar has vowed to increase the number of labor inspectors from 150 to 300, Crepeau was told on his visit.

Yet again, in Bahrain, this appears to be only one part of the equation. “Whatever number of inspectors they throw at us, it’s not enough,” argues Dias of the Bahraini experience. “On enforcement, I would say Bahrain was trying its very best.”

After today’s announcement, rumors of more change in Qatar are widespread. The Ministry of Interior said last month on Twitter that it was considering removing the no-objection letter for job transfers. McGeehan, who was recently in Doha, said the leadership was open to change. “We met with the prime minister and got the sense that they are going to move on structural reforms,” he said.

The public and the business community may be harder to convince. “The resistance is mainly from businessmen because they don’t want to pay good salaries,” said Alawi of his own experience in Bahrain. The kafala system is also widely popular among Gulf citizens, and leaders will need to convince their public that changes are both necessary and for the better.

An equal challenge is that there is there a clear alternative if the kafala were abolished altogether. Many countries welcome expatriate workers; almost none have such a high percentage of their populations arrive temporarily from overseas. Governments in the region may lack the institutions and personnel to regulate such a vast workforce — one reason that states rely on sponsors to absorb part of this burden.

Recruitment agencies pick up part of this load as well, adding to the steps during which abuse and exploitation can occur. Seventy-one percent of Qatari workers surveyed in 2013, for example, had paid for their visas (a cost meant to be carried by the employer); the average $1,031 cost for a two-year visa leaves many in debt upon arrival. Others are misled about their jobs and salaries in the Gulf when they are recruited. Copies of contracts are rarely given to employees and are indecipherable to low-skilled workers when they are received.

For now, Gulf countries are largely making changes along the edges. There is an urgent need for greater change, rights groups say.

“I think abolishing the kafala system is everyone’s wish, but you have to find some alternative arrangements. Someone has to be responsible,” said Dias. “These people are asking for so little in life: They want their salary, respect and good conditions.” 

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