'Modern slavery' still in Qatar despite new labour law

Human rights groups say Qatar’s decision to abolish controversial sponsorship system is only a 'change of name'
'Modern slavery' still in Qatar despite new labour law
(Getty Images - Photo for illustrative purpose only)
By Courtney Trenwith
Thu 15 May 2014 01:07 PM

International human rights groups have criticised Qatar’s new labour reforms, claiming “modern slavery” will still exist and the changes will make it easier for employers to hire migrant workers.

Qatar said on Wednesday it would abolish its controversial sponsorship system for foreign workers amid growing international criticism of working conditions in the Gulf state.

The kafala system would be replaced with “a system based on employment contracts", a statement cited by news agency AFP said.

The reforms will also end the longstanding requirement that foreign workers obtain their employer's consent before leaving the country.

However, Amnesty International, which has led criticism of the Gulf state’s treatment of foreign workers, said the changes fell “far short” of what was needed to address “systemic abuse”.

"Based on today’s announcement the proposals appear to be a missed opportunity. The government claims it is abolishing the sponsorship system, but this sounds like a change of name rather than substantive reform,” Amnesty International’s researcher on migrants’ rights in the Gulf James Lynch said.

“In particular, it remains unclear how proposed reforms to the exit permit will work in practice, and whether under the new proposal employers will retain the ability to object to workers leaving the country.”

A report by international law firm DLA Piper, commissioned by the Qatari government, also was released on Wednesday.

It found systemic abuse of migrant workers and was highly critical of several aspects of Qatar’s laws and policies, including the kafala system, which it says “is no longer the appropriate tool for the effective control of migration in Qatar”.

It confirmed more than 900 migrant workers had died in the past few years.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITCU), which also has led calls for worker reform, said the changes also failed to address the “multiple violations of international labour standards” and “modern slavery” would continue.

The organisation said despite removing the right of the employer to give permission for a worker to leave the country, exit visas would still exist, with the Interior Ministry now making the decision.

“There is no freedom of association, no minimum wage, and no effective labour compliance system,” an ITCU statement says.

“None of the laws seem to apply to domestic workers.

“No moves were announced to stop the death and injury toll amongst the migrant workforce.

“While freedom of movement for workers should always be respected, with the removal of the ‘no objection certificate’, the employer still sets the contract, the wage, and employees cannot join a union and negotiate.

“All these laws do is make it easier for employers to recruit staff as the World Cup infrastructure programme expands.”

Lynch said restrictions on migrants’ ability to leave Qatar constituted a breach of the right to freedom of movement.

However, he said some of the changes were positive.

The government has announced increased penalties for breaching the Labour Law and confiscating passports, and increased recruitment of labour inspectors.

“While some of the measures announced today are positive and if implemented would improve conditions for workers, they do not go nearly far enough,” Lynch said.

“Rather than re-jigging and renaming the sponsorship system, the government should commit now to genuine deep-rooted reform.

“Also, concrete measures tackling access to justice, health care and holding the private sector accountable for abuses against migrant workers, must be put in place.”

Both organisations criticised the lack of a time-frame for implementing the reforms.

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