New laws were passed offering migrant workers better legal protections. Despite government measures to control the spread of COVID-19, migrant workers bore the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. The authorities further tightened restrictions on freedom of expression. Women continued to face discrimination in law and practice. Executions resumed after a 20-year hiatus.
The Gulf crisis that started in 2017 continued, with ties severed between Qatar and Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In January, the Emir appointed Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani as Prime Minister and formed a new cabinet.
In March, the government introduced a series of measures to control the spread of COVID-19, including access to free health care, and provided financial support to businesses. The Emir also amended the Prevention of Infectious Diseases Law to increase fines and prison sentences for anyone violating its provisions and established a Health Prosecution Unit dedicated to such prosecutions.
In November, the Emir announced that long-promised elections to the Shura Council (an advisory body that acts as a quasi-parliament) will be held in 2021.
Migrant workers’ rights
Significant reforms aiming to protect migrant workers from labour abuse and exploitation were introduced, but employers continued to retain disproportionate powers as they oversee the entry and residence of migrant workers and can file criminal “absconding” charges against them. Following announcements by the Minister of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (MADLSA) in 2019 to abolish the kafala (sponsorship) system, in January the Ministry of Interior extended the abolition of the exit permit requirement to include domestic workers, stipulating, however, that they inform employers 72 hours before their departure.
In June, MADLSA announced the opening of a joint office with the Judiciary Supreme Council to facilitate implementation of the decisions of newly established committees to resolve labour disputes. However, access to justice for migrant workers remained largely slow and fruitless, and the conditions under which workers could collect their unpaid wages from the support fund, set up to help them recoup their money, were unclear.
Around 100 migrant workers, employed on a construction project for a FIFA World Cup stadium, worked for up to seven months without pay. While most employees eventually received the majority of their basic salaries, some workers still had several months of salaries or allowances outstanding at the end of the year.1
Despite some pilot projects to set up joint committees to represent workers in various companies, migrant workers, unlike Qatari nationals, were still unable to form or join trade unions.
In its July report following a visit to Qatar, the Special Rapporteur on racism raised serious concerns regarding the “structural forms of racial discrimination against non-nationals” and called on the government to “take urgent steps to dismantle what is in effect a quasi-caste system based on national origin”, including in the private sector.
In August, the Emir signed a series of laws setting a non-discriminatory minimum wage that must be revised annually, and two others abolishing the necessity for migrant workers to obtain the “No-Objection Certificate” from their employer to change jobs. The new legislation enabled workers to change jobs freely through an online process led by MADLSA.2 In preparation for this move, in July, the government launched a re-employment platform to enable companies and employees to seek new employment opportunities.
Migrant women domestic workers
Migrant domestic workers, mostly women, continued to face severe forms of abuse without access to a remedy despite the Domestic Workers Law introduced in 2017. Many employers made women work an average of 16 hours a day, denied them rest, prevented them from taking a day off in the week, and confiscated their passports despite this being illegal. These abuses took place in a climate of complete impunity for perpetrators. The only shelter, established in 2019, to offer refuge for domestic workers fleeing abuse and exploitation was not fully operational, making it even more difficult for them to leave an abusive workplace, let alone press charges against their employer.3
Right to health
The COVID-19 crisis exposed the vulnerability of migrant workers in Qatar.4 Although the government introduced some positive measures, such as free health care and testing for everybody, migrant workers were particularly affected by the pandemic and exposed to infection as a result of overcrowded and often insanitary living conditions.5 Cases of unpaid wages increased sharply from March and despite government-backed financial packages to support businesses and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, thousands of companies failed to pay workers on time. Despite the government’s announcement of measures and efforts to provide support to migrant workers, some of those living in lockdown areas complained about the lack of food and supplies.
In April, police rounded up dozens of Nepali migrant workers and told them they were to be tested for COVID-19 and then returned to their accommodation. Instead, they were taken to detention centres and held in appalling conditions for several days, before being expelled to Nepal without explanation or due process.6
Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression was further restricted by a vaguely worded law passed in January that criminalized a broad range of speech and publishing.7 Under the law, “biased” broadcasting or publishing can be punished by up to five years in prison and a fine of QAR100,000 (over US$25,000).
The authorities continued to exercise arbitrary executive powers, placing administrative sanctions such as travel bans on individuals without judicial process, in some cases seemingly as punishment for their political opinions or peaceful activities.8
Women continued to face discrimination in law and practice.
Family law continued to discriminate against women, including by making it much harder for them to seek a divorce, severely disadvantaging them economically if they sought a divorce or their husband left them.
In its report following its visit to Qatar, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted that women under the age of 25 must obtain the permission of their male guardians to engage in daily activities such as signing contracts and leaving the country. As a result, it said, “women were prevented from leaving their family homes without the permission of their legal guardians, resulting in de facto deprivation of liberty by their families.”
On 2 October, the Qatari authorities took a number of women off planes when they were travelling out of Doha’s airport in the capital and subjected them to forced, private medical examinations to determine if they had given birth; a baby girl had been found abandoned in a bin at the airport. The incident drew a public outcry prompting Qatar to issue an apology and launch an investigation into the incident.
Right to privacy
Qatar’s contact tracing app EHTERAZ, developed by the Ministry of Interior to contain the spread of COVID-19, had a serious security flaw that exposed sensitive personal details of over 1 million users. Once the authorities were alerted to the flaw, they quickly fixed it.9 The app, like many others, remained problematic due to its lack of privacy safeguards.10
Executions resumed in April after a 20-year hiatus.
- Qatar: Migrant workers unpaid for months of work on FIFA World Cup stadium (Press release, 11 June)
- Qatar: New laws to protect migrant workers are a step in the right direction (Press release, 30 August)
- Qatar: “Why do you want to rest?”: Ongoing abuse of domestic workers in Qatar (MDE 22/3175/2020)
- Qatar: Migrant workers in labour camps at grave risk amid COVID-19 crisis (Press release, 20 March)
- COVID-19 makes Gulf countries’ abuse of migrant workers impossible to ignore (Campaigns, 30 April)
- Qatar: Migrant workers illegally expelled during COVID-19 pandemic (Press release, 15 April)
- Qatar: Repressive new law further curbs freedom of expression (Press release, 20 January)
- Qatar: Arbitrary executive action puts lives on hold (MDE 22/2772/2020)
- Qatar: Contact tracing app security flaw exposed sensitive personal details of more than one million (Press release, 26 May)
- Bahrain, Kuwait and Norway contact tracing apps among most dangerous for privacy (Press release, 16 June)