Qatar is promising to abolish the kafala system in time for the World Cup in 2022 and usher in major migrant labor reforms according the the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Qatar claims it will end the kafala system — a sponsorship scheme likened to modern slavery — within the next two months.
The General Secretary of the ITUC, Sharan Burrow, expressed high confidence in the changes. “I am confident the kafala system is on its way out in Qatar and that will free two million migrant workers. By the end of March we will have seen the worst of kafala off the agenda and the beginnings of a mature industrial relations structure,” she said.
Speaking to The Independent, Burrow explained why the kafala system can easily exploit migrant workers:
“The kafala system means a system of modern slavery where you’re effectively owned by one other person. You go to an agency, you sign a contract but when you arrive in a country under the kafala system an employer can be honourable or not.
Many are not and they tear up the contract, substitute them with others, or not at all, and you’ll be paid half of the wages. You’re then absolutely dependent on the employers for your accommodation, the bulk of which is squalid or unsanitary, and there’s poor food and extreme working environment.
And, of course, when you seek remedy the court system is inadequate, could take up to two years and is hostile to people for whom Arabic is not their first language.
When it gets all too much and you want to go home you find that the employer refuses to sign your exit visa and refuses to sign a transfer of work so you are trapped in Qatar or trapped without work.”
Besides abolishing the kafala system, Qatar also claims that it will put in place other major reforms, including:
- an ILO office in Doha to oversee reform
- a labor tribunal to resolve disputes within three weeks.
- all contracts lodged with the government to prevent substitution
- residency permits and the elimination of exit visas.
- workers free to leave country either for home leave or at end of their contract.
- support fund from the government to pay for employee’s journey home, after which authorities would have to sue employers to get money back.
- domestic workers’ hours regulated and given a day off each week.
Still, some stress being cautious about the big promises. Campaigner Nicholas McGeehan noted that Qatar is “making all the right noises on labor reform . . . but the long view of this suggests we should be cautious. Reforms move slowly, and radical reforms are likely to move even slower. And promises have been broken before.”