Why Qatar should lead Gulf states in abolising the Kafala system for migrant labourers

Why Qatar should lead Gulf states in abolising the Kafala system for migrant labourers
Comment: Qatar is already two steps ahead of other Gulf nations in its reforms of labour rights, writes Arun Budhathoki.
4 min read
15 Nov, 2018
Doha recently announced the near-abolition of the exit visa system [AFP]
Jared Diamond in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, succinctly puts forward the notion that "we have to be willing to abandon old ways" in order to survive in this ever-changing world.

The same idea applies to Gulf states' seemingly stone-clad belief that workers are nothing but slaves with no rights. What started as a welcoming tradition in the 1930s is now a tool for exploitation wielded by those who do not uphold labour rights.

The Kafala system, in the nicest possible terms, is an unbalanced relationship between the employer and the worker. Most migrant workers still cannot travel to Gulf states without having a sponsor ["Kafeel"] - or to transfer to another job, or leave the country, without their permission. This system, in short, goes against the standards put forward by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work commits member states:

"To respect and promote principles and rights in four categories, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions. These categories are freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation."

None of the Gulf states are working 100 percent according to this convention. However, one is now working to end the hated sponsorship system. On September 4, 2018, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, signed a bill that now allows foreign workers to leave the country without the permission of their employers.

All foreign workers should be allowed to leave. This is fundamental to notions of freedom

Previously, the exit visa law allowed employers to not only exploit their workers but also keep them underpaid. Many human rights groups have applauded Qatar's move to scrap the exit visa law, but it has been criticised for its limitations. The bill excludes military personnel, as well as public sector and domestic workers. Critics say the new law is not enough to totally end the Kafala systemm and should be reformed once more.

All Gulf states, including Qatar, should let workers change employers without needing permission from their initial employer/sponsor.

The tight grip on employees surrounding "sensitive work" should meanwhile be released -
sponsors often argue they need to protect their sensitive information and assets by not letting their employees leave. It is not clear how many employees would know a company's "sensitive information", for a start.

All foreign workers should be allowed to leave. This is fundamental to notions of freedom.

Gulf nations should upgrade their labour laws to match international standards and stop migrant workers' deaths in extreme heat and due to other health factors.

Read more: Slavery was never abolished - it affects millions, and you may be funding it

These countries should ensure that migrant workers have access to workplace safety, and improve working conditions. Gulf nations should also ensure that financial burdens of sponsors are not transferred to the employee, risking leaving them unpaid.

Gulf nations must also ensure that employees come via a transparent and regulated recruitment agency, working effectively with other labour-exporting nations, notably from South Asia. Every single worker in Gulf nations should be sure of proper working hours, housing, food, and sick leave.

Qatar's signing of an October 2017 agreement with the ILO was a game-changer for migrant workers in the Gulf

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is notably the other country that requires exit visa of its foreign workers.

It is a farce that Saudi Arabia grants citizenship to Sophia, a robot artificial intelligence - but denies rights to those working within its boundaries. This notion of enslaving another human is not even acceptable to the AI.

Similarly, the situation for migrant workers is even worse if the sponsor files a complaint at the immigration office or fails to cancel the employee's residency.

Qatar's signing of an October 2017 agreement with the ILO was a game-changer for migrant workers in the Gulf.

rogress remains slow for workers here. But Qatar yet again comes to the forefront in committing to ending the slave-like system. One of the richest nations in the world is set to to replace the Kafala system with a "contract system". It now also allows migrant workers to renew their residency visa with the state, not through employers.

Moreover, it has also agreed to set up a minimum wage and prevent employers from holding on to employees' passports indefinitely.

They say with power comes responsibility. And that's why the wealthy and powerful Qatar should lead these reforms - not least because they are already two steps ahead in ringing the changes.

And perhaps the other Gulf states might follow in their steps  and update their own laws to meet international labour standards.

Arun Budhathoki is a freelance journalist based in Nepal. He's the editor-in-chief at the Kathmandu Tribune and is particularly interested in investigative, narrative and multimedia journalism.

Follow him on Twitter: @arunbudhathoki

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.