Construction workers in Doha, Qatar (Adam Jones/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Qatar now has “best labour laws in Gulf”, union body says

2 September 2020 | By Anthony Harwood | 0 Comments

Now that workers in Qatar can leave their jobs and will be paid a minimum wage, it has the “best labour laws in the Gulf”, says a campaigning union organisation.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said the third and final tranche of changes to the law meant the hated “kafala” system of sponsored labour was now effectively dead in the tiny Gulf state.

It followed the move by the Doha authorities at the weekend to allow migrant workers to leave their jobs without the permission of their employers.

The ITUC also described the establishment of the first minimum wage in the Gulf states as an “historic milestone”.

In a pay rise for 20% of the labour force, migrant workers will get 1000 Qatar riyals a month ($274), with an extra 800 riyals ($219.20) to cover accommodation and food, if not already met by employers.

We welcome the enactment of these laws, and now call on the Qatari authorities to ensure they are swiftly and properly implemented– Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International

The announcement came a week after campaigners Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report claiming the hosts of the 2022 World Cup were failing to protect migrant workers from abuse. 

But the ITUC said most of the 93 cases highlighted by HRW were already known about and for those that were not, systems had been put in place for grievances to be heard and dealt with.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, has been campaigning for the reforms for nearly seven years and sat down to negotiate with the Qataris in 2017.

She said: “It’s really good news and does set up workers with real protection. The culmination around a series of legal changes happened with the abolition of non-objection certificates, which means workers in a normalised industrial context can change jobs.

“The second reform is the minimum wage. This is really good because one of the first findings for us was to find there was basically a race-based system of wages.

“So if you were a Nepali you were paid in the main much less than if you were an Indian worker, and so in. Some of it was aligned to skills but not defined. And there was no non-discriminatory wage base, now there is.

“The minimum wage is set at good rate in the current environment and pretty much what we asked for. The accommodation standards are vastly different in that country now to what they were when we started. If you look at the transition into better accommodation, it’s impressive in the time frame.”

In the decade since it won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup Qatar has been heavily criticised by campaigners over its treatment of migrant workers building its stadiums.

One its fiercest critics has been Amnesty International, which described the latest reforms as a “step in the right direction”.

Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty’s Head of Economic and Social Justice, said: “For too long, laws that ban workers from changing jobs without their employer’s permission, along with widespread low pay, have left migrant workers in Qatar at the mercy of abusive employers.

“We welcome the enactment of these laws, and now call on the Qatari authorities to ensure they are swiftly and properly implemented.”

Comparing the changes in Qatar with what is happening in other Gulf states, Ms Burrow added: “Qatar now has the best labour laws in the Gulf states by far and we are putting pressure on other countries in the region because they do not live up to these standards.

“There have been some shifts in a few of them, but the United Arab Emirates still has exploitative practices and the reforms in Oman and Kuwait don’t go far enough. And certainly in Bahrain we’re going backwards.”

Around 20 million foreign workers are employed across the Gulf region under the kafala system of sponsored labour, described as modern day slavery.

In 2018 Qatar moved to dismantle one of its main pillars – the requirement for exit visas for migrant workers to go home – which could be withheld by unscrupulous bosses.

It has also done away with exorbitant recruitment fees being paid by workers in South Asia to come to the Gulf for work and introduced labour courts to recover lost wages.

“The biggest problem with the wage issue has been major companies that, frankly, are going broke in the Covid environment, they’re just going bankrupt,” said Ms Burrow.

“Now the government can assume the business assets for any company that actually is not paying wages, if it refused to adhere to its responsibilities.”

As well as those in the construction industry, the labour reforms in Qatar also apply to domestic and agricultural workers.

  • Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of The Daily Mail.

Image: Construction workers in Doha, Qatar (Adam Jones/CC BY-SA 2.0

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