Roshan Sedhain, Kathmandu
Dec 14, 2016- Qatar has formally announced the end of its controversial “kafala” system, in what is said to be the biggest labour reform undertaken by the Gulf emirate set to hold the 2022 football World Cup.
Announcing an end to the labour sponsorship system that forces foreign workers to seek their employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country, Qatari Labour Minister Issa bin Saad Al-Jafali Al-Nuaimi on Monday said “kafala” is now replaced with “a modernised, contract-based system that safeguards workers’ rights and increases job flexibility.”
Qatar has described the move as a latest step towards improving and protecting the rights of every expatriate worker in the Gulf emirate. But rights group have expressed cautious optimism that abolition of the “kafala” system will do enough to protect and promote rights of migrant workers. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the laws do not properly safeguard the rights of migrant workers.
Qatar is home to around half a million Nepalis.
Qatar hired 129,038 workers from Nepal in the fiscal year 2015-16, becoming the second largest recipient of Nepali migrants after Saudi Arabia.
Nicholas McGeehan, Qatar researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that it would be apt to describe the new laws as “old wine in new bottle.” “Qatar has just given the dreadful “kafala” system a new name in the hope that people will be too stupid to notice. Nepal and other countries that send young men and women to Qatar should be making their objections loud and clear,” McGeehan told the Post in an email interview.
He said that Qatar’s “sham reforms” are meant to shrug off pressure that has been mounting on the country for its mistreatment of migrant workers. Qatar has drawn widespread criticism for its mistreatment of workers since it won the right to host the 2022 football World
Cup. “What right does Qatar have to entrap young Nepali men and women in exploitative jobs and keep them from their families for up to five years? When will Nepal stand up for the fundamental rights of it people instead of just counting the money flowing back in remittances?” questioned McGeehan.
In a statement, Amnesty International said the migrant workers are still at risk of abuse despite Qatar’s reform pledge. “Changes to labour laws in Qatar barely scratch the surface and will continue to leave migrant workers, including those building stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, at the mercy of exploitative bosses and at risk of forced labour,” said the rights body said. Despite supposed reforms, it pointed at three key provisions of the new laws that still put migrants at risk of exploitation including forced labour.
“The workers still need their employer’s permission to change jobs, without which they face criminal charges for ‘absconding’ if they change jobs during a contract period which can last up to five years,” it said. “Similarly, migrants still require exit permits to leave the country, which can still be blocked by their employer. A government committee will consider workers’ appeals against being blocked from leaving. Moreover, employers can now legally retain workers’
The statement added that employers keeping workers’ passports, which was illegal until now, is now legal under a new loophole which abusive employers can easily exploit.
Nepali officials said that they would comment after they go through the new laws.
Govinda Mani Bhurtel, spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour and Employment, said that Nepali side will raise concerns in the bilateral forum if the laws still fall short of safeguarding rights of the workers.
“I came to know about the new legislation through news reports. It is said that the new laws would make it easier for the workers to obtain exit visa and apply for work elsewhere. We will go through the legislation and make our views public,” said Bhurtel.
Nepali workers, mostly unskilled, are working in diverse sectors of Qatar’s booming labour market contributing to the economy of both the sending and receiving countries. However, most of them have been facing severe forms of exploitation and are forced to live in squalid conditions.
According to the Nepali Embassy in Qatar, around 1,600 Nepali workers have died in Qatar since 2000.
Under the Kafala sponsorship system, a local citizen or a local company (the kafeel) must sponsor foreign workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in the host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering him or her vulnerable to exploitation. Gulf nations including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arabia Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan follow varying forms of Kafala to manage the migrant workforce. (The Kathmandu Post)