Qatar tries (but fails) to enter the 20th century 15, May 2014Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: kefala system, Qatar, Qatar exit visa, Qatar kefala system, Qatar reforms, sponsor transfer, Worker's rights
Qatar’s much anticipated announcement on reforming the system that controls and regulates foreign workers (the kefala system) was, in the end, an anticlimax.
Firstly, let us clearly lay out what has changed for those working in Qatar today:
Instead, as Dohanews reported, the proposed reforms announced represent the “first step” in changing the labor laws, which is somewhat curious given that these broad topics have been discussed for much of the last decade. The National Human Rights Committee, after all, was established back in 2002, while periodic announcements as to reports, consultations, reviews, and potential changes have been periodically referred to since the mid-2000s.
Fundamentally, it is no shock that Qatar is considering overhauling its draconian kefala system and that specifically the two key elements of it – exit visas and transfer of sponsorship – were going to have to evolve.
A few new pieces of information about some theoretical future system were mildly interesting, but given that all of this needs to be run through Qatar’s legal and legislative processes, how can anyone have any confidence of what will come out of the other end?
The current plans are almost comically watered-down as it is. Seemingly the Qatari government can hardly bear the concept of not having some ultimate control on workers leaving the country. The exit visa is being retained in the form of some ‘once and for all’ exit visa while ordinary exit visas are to stay but employees now will – theoretically, at some date in the future – have to deal directly with a Qatari government bureaucracy; something I’m sure all workers look forward to.
One genuinely interesting move is that employers will - theoretically, at some date in the future – no longer be liable financially for their employees. As an argument for retaining the exit visa, this argument is odious in and of itself, but with this leg gone, there is nothing but malice-laden greed for those seeking to retain the ability to stop employees leaving the country.
Simply put, this attitude towards workers is just not palatable or commensurate with how a state should be operating in the twenty-first century. The tenor of the relationship and the tone of the law speaks to a bygone age. It is immensely damaging for Qatar to so grimly cling on to such a relic of a law.
Similar to the exit visa issue, it appears that the Government cannot bear to give up control of workers transferring jobs entirely. If you have a fixed term contract and it finishes, you can – at some theoretical date in the future – change jobs with no problem. But if your contract is indefinite, you need to work there for five years before being allowed to change. I wonder how employers will restructure their contracts now?
Penalties: missing the point
Fines have been increased for withholding workers’ passports. This is a part of the basic ‘we have laws against this stuff’ defence, used ad nauseum at the UN last week. Yes, Qatar has laws and now larger fines, but this wholly misses the point: they’re just simply not enforced. Workers have had rights for years in Qatar (in the most basic way) but they are often summarily ignored and even when employees try to ‘use’ these rights, the rights of the employers are flagrantly more powerful.
This whole debate is immensely frustrating not least because it was avoidable. I had two immediate thoughts when Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Firstly, Qataris don’t have a clue as to the level of scrutiny that they and their country will receive from the international press. Secondly, and linked to the first point, overall 2022 is a good thing because it will force changes in Qatar’s draconian kefala system.
Change was and is inevitable. The working practices here which generally do not befit a modern country can’t remain. This, I think, is the basic reality, but one that Qatar’s government has avoided at all costs.
Instead of taking this opportunity to grasp this difficult, thorny issue, the problem has been left to fester. The international press has been merciless, egregiously rude and ill informed at times, but this was always going to be the case when Qatar left itself so open. What mealy-mouthed changes that Qatar undertakes now will be analysed in great detail, pulled apart and it will appear that Qatar has – as, indeed, it has – been reluctantly bullied into making as few changes as it could get away with.
Instead of using the best practice as evidenced by Shell’s sector-leading example in Doha for its Pearl GTL project and Qatar proudly taking the lead in championing workers’ rights across the region and the world, we have this slow, painful eking out of concessions.
I know perfectly well that the majority of Qataris want the situation to stay as it is. I know that many may feel somewhat overwhelmed by the foreigners in their country, and want some kind of extra control and that any changes would have been unpopular. But the elites have on occasion – rightly, as far as I see it – taken decisions for the betterment of their country that clearly ran against the social current, yet not on this issue.
If Qatar were known for supporting sport, Al Jazeera, mediation, Arab Spring support of varying varieties, and as the hub in the Gulf that guarantees a gold standard of safe, reliable, trustworthy employment practice – and let’s face it, the bar is hardly that high – the rewards on human capital attraction and retention would be immense. Instead, the tortuous process that escalates rancor on both sides will continue as these new proposals wind their way through Qatar’s legal and legislative systems, doubtless shedding credibility and protections as the years go by.