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Qatar tries (but fails) to enter the 20th century 15, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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1 comment so far

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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:

Nothing.

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?

Retaining control 

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.

Lost opportunity 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Qatar considers sponsorship system 11, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Gulf.
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Bahrain and Kuwait have already announced that they will alter their kefala sponsorship systems. While neither are wholly getting rid of such draconian systems, the fact that conversations on reform are at least being heard is a good start.

Qatar too is beginning to have its own debate. The government is said to be considering moves to guarantee workers’ pay and gratuities. Despite the fact that most manual and domestic workers are paid a pittance, their wages frequently fall in arrears. Within a week of arriving on Doha I heard of two large-scale instances where workers had not been paid as the employers were away on their holidays. The groundsmen at Doha hockey club, for example, would turn the sprinklers on as we were about to start playing to ‘vent’ their anger and, I suppose, to try to get the players to agitate on their behalf.

On the more fundamental question of Qatar abolishing its sponsorship and exit-visa systems, progress looks grim. The Qatari Chamber of Commerce has successfully lobbied to retain both these facets of Qatari labor law, despite the growing understanding that they are outdated, unfair and contribute to workers’ rights being abused.

Although the trend is gradually turning against the sponsorship and exit permit systems in the GCC countries, Qatar’s private sector says it would continue to back the above rules.

Of course the Chamber of Commerce backs such laws! In much the same way that a Turkey will never vote for Christmas and the Catholic Church isn’t going to vote for a gay Pope, a lobbying group whose role is to make things as pro-employer as possible will never willingly vote for human rights over profits.

Exactly this type of pressure in Bahrain led to the watering-down of their proposed reforms. Instead of allowing all workers to change jobs if they so choose [yes, the rights being argued for are this basic] domestic workers are still prohibited. Also, the kefala system has manifestly not been abolished: today it is the Labour Market Regulation Authority that sponsors workers and not individuals or agencies.

The fact that the Qatari government caved-in to its business lobby highlights just how strong it must be. Ordinarily, one might expect that Qatar would be leading the way on these kinds of topics. In recent years Qatar’s image has been built championing itself as some kind of progressive if not faintly liberal state, promoting values of education, tolerance and openness. This push has come from the three most powerful people in the country: the Emir, HBJ (the Foreign and Prime Minister) and the Emir’s wife. For them, therefore, not to reform such an egregiously harsh and manifestly illiberal blot on Qatar’s image shows the kinds of give and take that needs to go on. Neither can this triumvirate rely on wide-spread public support: such laws do nothing for Qataris themselves; indeed, if they do anything to them it is ‘inconvenience’ them. Until a ground-swell of domestic or international pressure is reached, there is little the government can do.