Posted by Stuart Bell

Qatar labour reforms: showing the way for the future?

I’m just back from speaking at a fascinating conference where we discussed the ongoing labour reforms in Qatar. Organised jointly by the Qatar Chamber of Commerce, the ILO and the Institute for Human Rights and Business, discussions showed how much change on labour rights that can be possible in a short period of time.

There are an estimated 2 million foreign workers in Qatar, mainly from South Asia. They vastly outnumber Qataris, who only comprise around 12% of the population. In the past this dependence on migrant labour had made the Qataris resistant to change.  However, Qatar is under international scrutiny over conditions for workers building FIFA World Cup™ 2022 infrastructure, and also involved in a bitter dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. In this context Qatar is now dismantling many aspects of the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system and has taken unprecedented steps towards addressing recruitment fees paid by migrant workers to get jobs.

In response to Qatar’s openness to reform, the ILO has suspended a previous enquiry and formal complaint about the country’s alleged failure to implement its forced labour convention, signed a co-operation agreement in late 2017 and opened a major country project office in Qatar to support the reform process.

Freedom to leave

The key change is on freedom of movement. Legislative amendments made in September 2018 will allow most foreign workers to leave the country without exit permits from their employers, so long as they meet their contractual commitments. Employers will still be able to ring-fence 5% of their workers, but there is discussion about phasing that out as well. At the conference, some local companies expressed concern that this could mean that workers, who they had recruited and trained, would now be free to move on. However, others emphasised that freedom of movement has to be accepted as part of a modern labour market. In any case, foreign migrant workers are still required to obtain their employers’ explicit consent prior to changing jobs within the country.

Official Qatari speakers were also keen to emphasise the establishment of migrant visa processing offices in source countries. The first has already opened in Sri Lanka, with eight more planned. It is hoped these will improve transparency in the recruitment process by enabling procedures such as fingerprinting and biometric data processing, medical examinations and the signing of work contracts will be done in the home countries of the expatriate workers before they arrive in Qatar.

Ethical recruitment

The core theme running through the conference was the challenges around fair recruitment – how to ensure that workers have full information about the job they are going to and do not pay excessive fees to brokers to obtain work, putting them in debt and vulnerable to exploitation. As in many countries, Qatari law prohibits charging fees to workers, but this fails to address or prohibit fees paid before departure in the migrant’s country of origin, where the charging of fees may be lawful.

Many international companies have now signed up to promote the employer pays principle, that is, that the ultimate employer should bear the costs of recruitment rather than the worker. The challenge now is to move from policy commitments to changing practices – not an easy thing with many entrenched intermediaries and agents in the recruitment chain, who are accustomed to getting their cut from the millions of migrant workers moving around the Gulf every year.

Reimbursing fees

However, at the conference, Mahmoud Qutub, Workers’ Welfare Executive Director at the Supreme Committee (SC) for Delivery and Legacy, the agency responsible for delivering the Qatar World Cup, outlined how the SC was starting to tackle the issue by collaborating with local contractors to reimburse workers who had paid recruitment fees prior to coming to Qatar. According to the SC, the programme will lead to workers directly involved in Qatar 2022 infrastructure projects receiving QAR 39.4 million ($10.8m) over the next three years, while an additional five SC contractors have agreed to reimburse more than 8,000 workers not engaged on Qatar 2022 projects, with a further QAR 13 million ($3.6m) of payments.

Reimbursement, as a form of remediation, will be welcome for many workers, and is also being pursued by international companies in other sectors, but all project developers and companies – working with international organisations, national governments, employment brokers and others – need to work on preventing recruitment fees being charged in the first place. There is a danger that if recruiters know workers will be reimbursed, then they will simply build this into the fees they charge and charge even higher rates.

Among other reforms, workplaces with more than 500 workers must also have joint committees, with equal representation from employers and workers, to jointly address workplace issues, though these fall short of independent worker representation. There are also improved official disciplinary and grievance procedures. Qatar has additionally implemented a temporary minimum wage for migrant workers of around $200 per month while it develops a process for determining a permanent, and regularly updated, wage.

There is undoubtedly a long way to go, but conference participants on and off the record were bullish, pointing out that only a few years ago, these sort of changes would have been unthinkable. It will be interesting to see if Qatar can set the standard for other Gulf states and if the SC’s approach to migrant workers will impact on how other major infrastructure projects in the region go about managing contractors and their labour force.