CREDIT: Associated Press/Osama Faisal
Facing international criticism for its treatment of workers, Qatari government officials Wednesday announced changes to the country’s labor laws that it says will give workers more rights and freedoms than they have under the nation’s restrictive kafala system. International labor organizations and worker advocacy groups, however, insist that the country that will host the 2022 World Cup has only rebranded its current system with a new name.
Nearly 90 percent of Qatar’s population is made up of migrant workers from India, Nepal, and other countries. Under kafala, which has attracted the attention of the international labor community for years and the media since FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup, workers have virtually no rights. Workers must have a domestic sponsor to enter the country, and the sponsor controls living conditions, wages, and whether they can change jobs or leave the country.
At a highly anticipated announcement Wednesday, Qatari officials announced what they said were sweeping changes to the system, though they offered no time table for the implementation of the reforms. The country will abolish the kafala system if a draft law is approved, according to The Guardian, ending the sponsorship system that directly ties workers to their employers. It will replace it with a contractual employment system, the government said, which should give workers more rights to change jobs. The proposed reforms also increase fines on employers who do not pay workers proper wages in a timely manner, and Qatar will attempt to implement an electronic payment system to make compensation practices more transparent.
The biggest potential change, pending the draft proposal, is to the oft-criticized exit visa system, which allows employers to prevent their workers from leaving the country. That system came under international scrutiny when French soccer player Zahir Belounis, who played for Qatari club Al-Jaish, tried to leave the country but could not when the club refused to grant permission. The new system will scrap the employer-controlled exit visa system, and it will increase fines on employers who take passports from workers who enter the country to five times the current rate. The government will now control the entrance and exit permit system, according to the announced changes.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter welcomed the changes.
“This announcement is a significant step in the right direction for sustainable change in the workers’ welfare standards in Qatar. We look forward to seeing the implementation of these concrete actions over the next months. We will continue our close cooperation with Qatari authorities as well as dialogue with all key stakeholders,” Blatter said in a statement.
FIFA’s statement said that Blatter and FIFA Executive Committee member Theo Zwanziger, who has previously questioned whether the organization should or could force changes in Qatari labor laws, would postpone a scheduled trip to Qatar until after the 2014 World Cup so they could see how the proposed changes were implemented.
Some Qatari officials have pushed for changes to the labor system amid international scrutiny, and The Guardian reported that Qatar has “openly engaged” with critics in an attempt to improve labor laws and workplace standards.
The international labor group that has likened Qatar to a “modern-day slave state,” however, is less impressed with the reforms, saying they are merely a rebranding of the current system and do not go far enough or address many abuses against workers that fall outside the exit visa system.
“Modern slavery will still exist in Qatar despite the announcement of cosmetic reforms to the labour law today,” Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said in a statement on the group’s web site.
ITUC criticized the lack of a firm timetable for implementation of the new rules, and noted that there is little indication that Qatar will initiate more sweeping changes — like giving workers the right to join unions and collectively bargain or a mandated minimum wage — that it and other organizations have recommended. Workers in Qatar are rarely allowed to bargain with their employers and they are not allowed to join unions. ITUC’s statement called on Qatari officials to “stop refusing to discuss” unionization as a potential reform.
It also remains unclear whether the new system will give workers more access to a grievance process against their employers, and whether the government will enforce new fines for confiscating passports or failing to pay proper wages in a timely manner. ITUC has previously said that while routine practices like taking workers’ passports are already illegal in Qatar, they are “completely disregarded” by the government.
ITUC released a report in March detailing the problems with the kafala system, and it estimated that more than 4,000 migrant workers would die on the job in Qatar between then and the start of the World Cup in 2022. A Guardian investigation earlier this year found that dozens of migrant workers had died on World Cup-related projects in a two-month period during the summer of 2013.
The announced reforms do little to nothing to address concerns about workplace safety standards to prevent deaths, ITUC said, and the new system still leaves wages and contractual terms fully in the hands of employers.
“No moves were announced to stop the death and injury toll amongst the migrant workforce. While freedom of movement for workers should always be respected, with the removal of the ‘no objection certificate’, the employer still sets the contract, the wage, and employees cannot join a union and negotiate,” Burrow said in the statement. “All these laws do is make it easier for employers to recruit staff as the World Cup infrastructure program expands.”
Qatari officials, for their part, continue to insist that no workers have died on World Cup construction projects, though this could be misleading: construction on stadiums has hardly begun, but it is underway on many other projects as part of Qatar’s $200 billion infrastructure spending plan that is tied to the soccer tournament. The government said Wednesday that more announcements about labor reforms will come soon.