UN agency must keep up pressure on Qatar as government’s migrant labour reforms fall short
The International Labour Organization (ILO)’s governing body must continue to scrutinize Qatar’s record on migrant labour abuse, Amnesty International said, ahead of a crucial 21 March decision on a complaint brought by trade unions against the Gulf state.
Last week the government stated it had “repealed” its controversial sponsorship law, including the requirement that migrant workers obtain an exit permit from their employers to leave the country. Amnesty International does not accept this claim and considers that there are not currently sufficient grounds to close the complaint against Qatar. The organization is calling for the ILO’s complaint process to continue, in line with a draft decision issued ahead of Tuesday’s session.
“This is a critical juncture for migrant workers in Qatar. The government has made some public commitments in response to ILO pressure, but its claims that it has abolished the sponsorship system simply do not add up,” said James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues Programme.
“If the ILO governing body endorses Qatar’s inadequate reforms by dropping this complaint, this could have damaging consequences for migrant rights in Qatar and across the region.”
The ILO has been reviewing labour abuse in Qatar since 2014, with a specific focus on forced labour and labour inspection. On Tuesday, the governing body will consider a draft decision that proposes to give Qatar a further eight months to show it has made adequate migrant labour reforms.
The government of Qatar has made a series of labour-related announcements in the run-up to the ILO governing body meeting, which suggests that the complaint process is having some impact. However, these announcements have not yet led to substantive reforms, and further pressure is needed to turn these promises into reality.
Background on Qatar’s new employment law
Last week, the Government of Qatar told the ILO that its new employment law (Law 21 of 2015) “repealed the kafala [sponsorship] system”, and that a subsequent amendment, (Law 1 of 2017) had “repealed the exit permit”.
While Qatar’s new employment law does include one potentially significant change, removing the rule preventing migrant workers from returning to work in Qatar for two years unless their former sponsor agreed, the law has changed little for workers overall. The words “sponsor” and “sponsorship” have been removed but the core elements of the sponsorship system which drives labour abuse remain. In particular:
Workers still need their employer’s permission to seek alternative employment, during the period of their contract, which can last up to five years. If they change jobs without this permission they face criminal charges for “absconding” which lead can lead to their arrest, detention and deportation.
Workers still require permission from their employer to leave the country. Under Law No. 1 of 2017, workers now need to “notify” their employer to leave the country. The process of “notification” mirrors the established exit permit system.
Regrettably, Qatar’s new employment law introduces a loophole which makes it easier for abusive employers to confiscate workers’ passports. An increase in the fine imposed for passport confiscation is undermined by now allowing employers to legally keep workers’ passports with written consent. This measure increases the risk of abusive employers retaining workers’ passports against their will.