Week of 31 August 2020
Qatar has introduced new labour laws: the country is establishing the first minimum wage in the Gulf States, which will increase the wages of 400,000 migrant workers by 33%. The country is also dismantling the “kafala” sponsorship system and is enabling migrant workers to change employers and exit and enter the country for work more easily. Observers welcomed the reforms in the context of the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which relies heavily on migrant labour in the construction sector, and are now focused on implementation.
On 30 August 2020, the Qatar Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (MADLSA) announced a series of labour reforms designed to help protect vulnerable, low-wage workers such as migrant domestic workers and construction workers.
Following consultations with national labour experts, the Ministry introduced Law No. 17 of 2020 on Setting the Minimum Wage for Workers and Domestic Workers. According to the government, the law “sets the minimum wage for all private sector workers, including domestic workers, at QAR 1,000 per month as a basic wage, as well as QAR 500 per month allocated by the employer for accommodation expenses and QAR 300 per month for food, unless the employer already provides adequate food or accommodation for the employee or domestic worker.” According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), “the establishment of the first minimum wage in the Gulf States is a historic milestone” and the new law will increase the wages of 400,000 migrant workers by 33%.
The government also introduced Decree Law No. 18 of 2020 (amending some provisions of Labour Law No. 14 of 2004) and Decree Law No. 19 of 2020 (amending some provisions of 2004 Law No. 21 of 2015). The decrees enable foreign workers to change employers and to exit and enter the country for work more easily. Migrant workers will now be able to change jobs, without first having to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from their employer and greater clarity is provided on how to terminate employment. Per the International Labor Organisation (ILO), “[t]his new law, coupled with the removal of exit permit requirements earlier in the year, effectively dismantles the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system and marks the beginning of a new era for the Qatari labour market.” According to the Qatari government, “[t]his will drive greater competition in Qatar’s labour market by allowing employees to change employers and allowing employers to attract the best talent on the local market.”
Employers who violate the law will be subject to higher penalties than before, and in some cases new penalties will apply. Further, the amendments “also include increasing the number of labour dispute resolution committees in an effort to tackle the number of labour disputes, facilitate workers’ access to the rights, and expedite legal proceedings.”
The laws will come into force in six months. As next steps, MADLSA “will be working with employers to update all employment contracts where workers earn less than the amount established by the new Law.” The government will also form a Minimum Wage Committee to oversee and review minimum wage standards.
Background and context
These labour reforms were introduced following years of strong criticism of Qatari labour laws and practices, in particular for migrant workers. The previous ‘kafala’ (or sponsorship) system imposed restrictions on migrant workers by tying their visas to their employers, preventing them from leaving their jobs without their employer’s permission, and requiring them to obtain exit permits from their employers before being able to leave the country. As reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW):
- “This leaves workers dependent on their employers for their legal residency and status in the country, placing them in a position of vulnerability that employers can, and often do, take advantage of.”
- “The kafala system grants employers unchecked powers over migrant workers, allowing them to evade accountability for labor and human rights abuses, and leaves workers beholden to debt and in constant fear of retaliation. In Qatar, where workers, especially low-paid laborers and domestic workers, often depend on the employer not just for their jobs but also for housing and food, and where passport confiscations, high recruitment fees, and deceptive recruitment practices are ongoing and largely go unpunished, the kafala system continues to drive abuse, exploitation, and forced labor practices.”
Scrutiny of these issues has increased since Qatar was awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup, causing it to quickly ramp up construction on facilities, hotels and infrastructure for the games and drawing in more migrant workers, especially in the construction sector. These workers have been particularly vulnerable to labour abuses under the kafala system.
According to an Amnesty International report on migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, “[t]he abuse and exploitation of low paid migrant workers, sometimes amounting to forced labour and human trafficking, have been extensively documented since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar.”
Reactions to the new labour reforms
Many observers responded positively to the reforms, although some also expressed reservations about the level of enforcement:
- In an International Labour Organization (ILO) statement, Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, said, “This is very good news for migrant workers in Qatar. The leadership shown by Qatar in dismantling the kafala system and introducing a minimum wage is long-awaited news for all workers. The ITUC stands ready to support the Government of Qatar in the implementation of this historic move, to ensure all workers are aware of the new rules and benefit from them. Other countries in the region should follow Qatar’s example.”
- Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), a construction workers’ union that represents many workers on construction projects for mega-sporting events like the World Cup, welcomed the labour reforms while also noting that “there has often been a delay between legal changes and implementation on the ground.” Ambet Yuson, the General Secretary of BWI, said, “BWI and the migrant Community Leaders Forum are looking forward to a meaningful engagement with the MADSLA on the implementation of these new laws. We pledge to work closely with Qatar authorities and our other partners to help complete this journey and ensure that promising and far-reaching legislative measures make a real difference for rights and conditions in construction and that these and other changes will lead to an effective system of industrial relations. It’s time for the migrant workers to be part of this change.”
- Gianni Infantino, President of the FIFA governing body, said, “We sincerely congratulate the State of Qatar on this significant step. […] Well before kick-off, this important milestone demonstrates the capacity of the FIFA World Cup to foster positive change and build a lasting legacy. There is definitely still room for further progress, and we will continue to work closely with the authorities and all stakeholders to promote a progressive agenda that should be of long-term benefit to all workers in Qatar, whether involved in the preparation of the event or not.”
- Amnesty International called the laws “a step in the right direction,” but pointed out that there is still progress to be made: “[T]he reforms have not removed the ability of employers to file criminal ‘absconding’ charges against workers who leave their job without permission. Employers will also remain responsible for renewing and cancelling their workers’ residence permits, thus retaining considerable power over their employees.” Steve Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice, stated, “While the new minimum wage will boost the incomes of some of Qatar’s lowest-paid workers, the level set remains low. To truly make a difference it will need to be regularly reviewed and progressively increased to secure just and favourable conditions for workers. […] This will need to be accompanied by much tougher action against employers who fail to pay their employees properly, or at all. To guarantee everyone’s right to a decent standard of living, Qatar must also clamp down on illegal recruitment fees that leave many migrant workers in debt bondage.”
H.E. Yousuf Mohamed Al Othman Fakhroo, Minister of Administrative Development, Labour & Social Affairs, Government of Qatar, Statement from the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs on New Minimum Wage and Labour Mobility Law (30 August 2020)
Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Dismantling the kafala system and introducing a minimum wage mark new era for Qatar labour market (30 August 2020)