Qatar ‘tweaks’ kafala system for expats
Although the statement suggested the policies took effect yesterday, the government subsequently confirmed they would only become law today - a year after the emir signed off on the change. Under the new law, workers will generally be free to leave Qatar so long as they inform their employer first. Employees whose bosses refuse can appeal to a government committee that must address requests within three days.
Workers who have unsettled debts - potentially anyone who has taken out a local credit card, mortgage, or car or personal loan - or those wanted as part of a criminal case can be forced to stay. The law allows workers to change jobs, but only after they complete an existing fixed-term contract or have worked five years on an openended one. The new reforms impose fines of up to 25,000 riyal ($6,865) on businesses who confiscate employees’ passports. “The new law is the latest step towards improving and protecting the rights of every expatriate worker in Qatar,” Nuaimi said. “It replaces the kafala system with a modernized, contract-based system that safeguards workers’ rights and increases job flexibility.”
Rights activists that have examined the reforms say they continue to leave workers ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous employers. “This new law may get rid of the word ‘sponsorship’ but it leaves the same basic system intact,” said James Lynch, Amnesty International’s deputy director for global issues. He urged football’s world governing body FIFA, its sponsors and those seeking to do business with it or Qatar to “not use this reform to claim that the problem of migrant labor abuse has been solved”.
Human Rights Watch echoed that sentiment. “The message this law sends is that Qatar doesn’t really care much about migrant workers,” said Joe Stork, the group’s deputy Middle East director. “Its sponsorship system remains a serious stain on Qatar’s international reputation.” World Cup organizers say some 36,000 people will work on its projects next year. Many more workers toil away on other job sites such as roads, hotels and public transportation links that will cater to fans attending the games.
Yesterday’s announcement sits alongside previous reforms which shows Doha is responding to its critics, officials say. But what of the views of those on the front line, the laborers helping to build the infrastructure which the world will see in six years’ time? “I’ve heard about a change in the law, but what the change will be I don’t know,” said Girijesh, an Indian electrician, during his hour-long lunch break in downtown Doha.
Girijesh is just one of hundreds of blue and yellowoveralled workers resting after a morning’s work in Mshereib, where an estimated $5.5 billion project to convert a rundown part of Doha into a gleaming financial and tourist center is under way. Here, where stray cats now scavenge skips for food, traders sell tobacco for five Qatari riyals and workers sit on the steps of a rundown mall housing computer and clothing shops, will be built Doha’s very own “Wall Street” financial district.
As Girijesh speaks, a crowd gathers, eager to voice their own concerns about working conditions. Most concern pay - either not receiving their monthly salary or only finding out once they were in Qatar that the money they were promised before leaving is a fraction of what they actually earn. “My work is really hard and really dangerous as well, but I only earn 600 Qatari riyals a month,” says Nazamudin, a Nepalese marble fitter. That works out at around $165. He was promised double that amount before leaving home and paying more than $1,100 to get a visa into Qatar. “I don’t want to be here,” he says sadly.
Similarly Ibrahim, an electrician from Bangladesh, says he receives a salary of 810 riyals, despite being promised 1,200 a month. To compound matters he has not been paid for months. What these workers say they want - whether under a sponsorship or contract system - is wage security. “All laborers have a problem in Qatar,” says Ibrahim, who has to pay off 30,000 Qatari riyals to an agent who helped him secure work in the Gulf. “If the Qataris are implementing this new law, hopefully it will be better for us,” he tells AFP through an interpreter. “The main thing is the contract. My contract is my security and I need to be secure.”
Scaffolder Saddulhaq from Bangladesh says laborers are exploited by unscrupulous agents, and not only over pay. He says many cannot read, so they have no idea what they are signing up to, or even for the amount of time they will be in Qatar. “We do not know how long we are going to work for,” Saddulhaq says. At its worst, the uncertainty over pay can lead to workers paying the ultimate price, says Amir, a Nepalese carpenter. “Many people choose suicide,” said the father-offour. “Some months we don’t get paid. Your family is starving, your kids are starving, there’s no food at home... that’s why people choose suicide.” Asked how often colleagues take their own lives, Amir says there are cases every month. — Agencies