The most deeply resented employment condition for migrant workers in Qatar, the “kafala” system, is to be abolished in January, the International Labour Organisation has announced.
The ILO, a UN employment rights agency which has been working on reforms with the Qatar government since 2017, said the Gulf country’s ministers had agreed to end kafala and also introduce “a non-discriminatory minimum wage, the first in the Middle East”.
The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, reported on Wednesday.
Kafala ties workers to so-called sponsorship by their employer, meaning they cannot move jobs or leave the country without the employer’s approval. Human rights groups have campaigned for years to have kafala abolished across the Gulf, whose countries use millions of low-paid immigrant workers mostly from the Indian subcontinent.
Fifa’s decision to locate the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has hugely increased scrutiny, and the Qatar government ultimately responded by signing a formal cooperation with the ILO promising to implement improvements.
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The ILO said the latest reforms have been agreed unanimously by Qatar’s governing council of ministers, and must next pass through the country’s advisory (“shura”) council, before approval by the emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, which it said is expected by January.
Describing the abolition of exit permits and “no-objection certificates” for workers moving jobs as marking “the end of kafala,” the ILO said: “These steps will greatly support the rights of migrant workers, while contributing to a more efficient and productive economy.”
The level of the minimum wage, a key reform given the low pay for migrant workers in Qatar, the world’s richest per-capita country, will be set later this year, the ILO said, and not discriminate between nationalities. Last year the Guardian reported that men working on World Cup stadium construction sites far from their families overseas, and living in “labour camps”, were being paid £40 per week in Qatar.
Human rights groups are increasingly raising the alarm about the dangers of working in the Gulf during a large part of the year when heat and humidity are intense. The Guardian reported this month that expert medical research into the high incidence of fatal heart attacks suffered by previously healthy young men working in Qatar had concluded that hundreds were caused by heat stress.
Last week the ILO announced the results of its own joint study with the Qatar government into heat stress, which concluded that people could safely work outdoors during prescribed hours, if appropriate precautionary measures were taken, which it was working to have passed into law.
Nicholas McGeehan, an advocate for improved human rights in the Gulf, said the announced employment reforms should be greeted with “very cautious optimism” until they are actually passed into law and implemented. He added that: “Urgent action is needed on heat stress in Qatar, and in the Gulf generally.”