Modern slavery: Qatar workers allowed to leave without exit visas

Migrant workers helping build eight stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be able to leave the country without exit visas from their employers, it has been announced.

The move is the first step by the Doha government to ending the hated kafala system under which 1.5 million construction workers face being trapped in the country because their bosses won’t give them the necessary paperwork to go home.

In all, there are more than 20 million migrants, mainly from South Asia, working across the Middle East under the kafala system in both construction and domestic labour.

The tiny Gulf state has been criticised for its treatment of migrant workers as it prepares to host the World Cup, with kafala being singled out as a system that allows unscrupulous bosses to keep workers in servitude.

The 2022 tournament is being presented as a catalyst for change, a showcase of Qatar’s progress and development.

In an agreement with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Doha government pledged at the beginning of the year to introduce sweeping reforms to improve workers conditions.

In March the authorities announced they would be paying back the recruitment fees for 30,000 migrant workers by the end of 2019 as part of a £3.6m ($5m) payout.

The money is paid by workers in their home countries to contractors who find them work abroad. But payments were only reimbursed if the worker could produce receipts, which rarely happened.

This week the ILO hailed the move allowing migrant workers to leave Qatar without permits from their employers as a "significant step".

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, said: "Today marks a huge step for workers’ rights and the end of the kafala system for migrant workers in Qatar.

"An estimated 1.5 million workers will now have the freedom to leave Qatar without their employer’s permission and this eliminates a central part of the kafala system of modern slavery which is still in place in other Gulf countries."

Qatar’s system still requires the country’s 1.6 million mainly Asian foreign workers to get employers’ consent when changing jobs, and the ITUC said Qatar would still need to abolish exit permits for domestic workers so they enjoy the same freedoms.

The ILO is working on a three-year programme on working conditions and labour rights for migrant workers.

Houtan Homayounpour, Head of the ILO office in Doha, said: "This first step towards full suppression of exit permits is a clear sign of commitment by the government of Qatar to labour reforms and a key milestone in the process. The ILO will continue to work closely with the government of Qatar on these reforms."

Amnesty International welcomed the move as a step in the right direction. 

"Qatar’s World Cup legacy can be the transformation of its labour system from one that drives exploitation to one that provides an example for the region. There remains a huge amount to do, and fully abolishing the exit permit should be one step among many in achieving that," said Amnesty’s Stephen Cockburn.

  • Freelance journalist Anthony Harwood is former foreign editor of the Daily Mail, and former Head of News at the Daily Mirror.

Image: Workers in Doha, Qatar (Giuseppemasci/Dreamstime)

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