Last month Qatar said it would abolish its kafala labour system following reports of migrant worker deaths and widespread abuse of their human rights. But an Amnesty International spokesperson told a week-long conference organised by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) in Qatar this week that the proposed reforms don’t go far enough, and warned of greater human misery as an increasing number of workers enter a dysfunctional system.
For James Lynch, the Qatar problem is epitomised by the plight of 80 migrant workers whom it discovered, last December, stranded in the country with no money for food and a year’s wages owing to them.
About 60 of the men were from Nepal, with the rest coming from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries. They had been working for a contractor fitting out Doha’s prestigious Al Bidda Tower. When the job finished the contractor ceased trading, leaving their wages unpaid. Unable to afford the QAR600 ($165) court fee required per person to open a file into their case, the workers were left without legal recourse, passports, or even residence permits.
Lynch, a researcher for Amnesty International’s global issues programme, told the gathering of construction professionals that main contractors routinely passed responsibility for workers’ welfare to subcontractors who were "quite blasé" about the issue.Â
He said "many" workers were suicidal, and not only the workers themselves but also families members who faced the stigma of having a relative in the Gulf who was not sending money home.
He urged contractors to consider practical measures to prevent crises, such as contingency funds so that stranded workers could buy food.Â
Many believe the real issue, however, is Qatar’s labour system, known as kafala. Common across the southern Gulf states, kafala binds migrant workers to their employers, a practice that Amnesty International and others have said leaves scope for exploitation.
The majority of Qatar’s population are migrant workers. The country has a vast infrastructure programme launched in preparation for the 2022 Fifa World Cup and as part of a bigger plan to shift its economy away from hydrocarbons.
On 14 May Qatar surprised the world by announcing that it would abolish kafala and replace it with a more conventional contractual relationship. But in an interview with GCR James Lynch said the proposed reforms would not fix the problems.Â
"When you look at the details, it was a very short announcement with a lot left unclear," he said. "There have subsequently been some announcements which have added even more unclarity."
He said the two key problems with kafala were the no-objection certificate and the exit permit. The no-objection certificate obliges a worker to get permission from their employer before they can work for anyone else. This obligation extends for two years after the worker leaves Qatar.Â
We don’t see last month’s reforms as abolition, it’s just sort of tinkering– James Lynch of Amnesty International on Qatar’s kafala labour system
The exit permit requirement means a worker cannot leave the country except with his company’s permission.
These two conditions mean that migrant workers are vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, Lynch said, adding that neither was addressed by the reforms announced in May.Â
The government said it would link the no-objection requirement to the term of the worker’s contract, but if the contract were open-ended, the no-objection requirement would last five years.Â
"What we heard almost immediately," Lynch said, "was that employers were saying they were only going to issue open-ended contracts from now on. So the reforms time-limit kafala, but only to five years. Many, many workers don’t stay longer than that anyway. So, if you come with a debt and find that you’ve been deceived about your salary, you’ll find you’re in the same boat as you were before. So we don’t see that as abolition – it’s just sort of tinkering."
For the exit permit, the reform proposed would allow workers to apply directly to the ministry of the interior. Permission would be granted automatically after 72 hours, but only if the employer raised no objection.Â
"So we’re still leaving the employer with the ability to block someone’s exit,"Lynch told GCR. "And our assessment is that, just as at the moment most decent employers give an exit permit when it’s requested, it would be the same unscrupulous companies that would deny exit.
"Are they abolishing kafala? No. Are they changing the name? Possibly. The changes, which are just proposals at the moment, anyway, and may be months away, are not going to address the issues that we’ve seen in our research."Â
In a talk before a workshop on workers’ welfare and contractors’ responsibilities, he reiterated the findings of Amnesty’s November 2013 report that found instances of workers being paid less than they were promised, of having pay delayed or withheld, of being housed in "squalid" conditions, of having their passports confiscated and being prevented from leaving the country.Â
The report, entitled "The Dark Side of Migration", was based on interviews with approximately 200 construction workers and around 20 companies and Qatari government agencies.
Lynch told delegates that the migrant worker population was continuing to grow, which meant that, unless industry and government each took steps to address the issues, the result would be more human misery.
"The population is growing 10 and 12% a year," he said, "and that is largely low-income construction workers who are arriving into the context we documented, a sector that is pretty rife with abuse."
He said the government could right away cancel both the exit permit requirement and the court fee, two measures that would, he said, improve the lot of workers immediately.Â
For more on the plight of the 80 workers, see here