1 thought on “Expat Labour in the Gulf: Qatar”

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    Patrick Theros

    Again a well written piece on expat labor but I am afraid that Mr. Dorsey’s information may be a bit dated and myopic. I am happy that he recognizes that international criticism has been directed almost entirely at Qatar, but unfortunately he has largely ignored situations in neighboring countries that are just as bad and usually worse than what occurs in Qatar. Additionally, he ignores the complexity of solving these problems.
    In fairness, Qatar’s high profile in recent years ranging from hosting the World Cup in 2022 to its very active role in helping to midwife the Arab Spring makes it a juicy publicity target.
    Having said that, I will be the first to admit that Qatar has serious issues relating to the condition of foreign workers. Like all its GCC neighbors, Qatar imposed the “kefala” system. Workers have endured a long chain of abuses beginning with recruitment agencies in their home countries extracting exorbitant fees, contract switching and failure to pay the promised wages. Workers have had their passports seized, endured terrible living conditions, long and unhealthy working conditions, restrictions on changing jobs or employers, and an institutional lack of legal recourse from the authorities.
    Qatar parts company, however, with its neighbors in that it quickly acknowledged the problems, addressed these accusations and has worked to correct them. The statement that they have paid lip service to accusations and done nothing about them reflects what the NGOs have been saying but not what has actually transpired on the ground.
    The criticisms that are regularly levied at Qatar have merit, but they consistently ignore the complexity of making meaningful institutional changes.
    Let me enumerate a partial list of what Qatar has actually done and some of the unavoidable obstacles that unfortunately means that these necessary changes will not simply occur overnight.
    Qatar has instituted and put into operation a complete overhaul of “kefala” and its contracting and payment systems. Accusations that abuses in this area continue are simply unfounded and sensationalist.
    Contracting and Payments: As of last month the employer of record of each and every expatriate worker from bank president to brick hod carrier must have opened a bank account in a Qatari bank in the name of the employee. The employer of record must also register a formal contract indicating salary and salary payment date with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the employer must pay the contracted salary into the account of the employee no later than five days after the beginning of the month.
    To ensure that the employer is in compliance with the law, the Ministry reports this contract to the Central Bank, which has set up a monitoring system that feeds automatically into the Central Bank. The Central Bank will inform the Ministry of Labor of any failure to pay by the deadline or failure to pay the full contract amount. The Ministry of Labor levies a large fine on violators. Companies hiring new expatriates must provide a copy of the contract and proof of a bank account with the application for a work visa. Without this information, the Ministry will not issue a visa.
    Application of this law will not come into force for domestics employed by private persons until the government has devised a system for allowing families to make electronic payments.
    The positives of these new regulations are many, but effectively incorporating them into existing institutional structures does take time. The new system has put a tremendous strain on the banking system because the number of bank accounts has gone from about 300,000 to almost two million in about a year. The Qatari banks lack enough brick and mortar branches and ATM machines to cope with the new requirements. This has created problems for the banks dealing with international norms, especially the requirement to “know your customer” that can cause a bank to run afoul of US regulators and law enforcement. “Knowing your customer” if the customer is a semi-literate laborer from Tamil Madu who has never used a bank before in his life presents real institutional challenges that Qatari banks must address.
    Implementing the new laws also created new obstacles for small Qatari businesses that had not automated their accounting and payroll. Until now they kept their books with stubby pencils and paper ledgers and paid their workmen at the labor camp in cash in an envelope. This has now changed but raises new problem; for example, the semi-literate worker who must learn to use an ATM debit card.
    Living Conditions: Qatar has tripled the number of labor inspectors and has instituted regular inspections of living accommodations. Minimal space standards and maximum occupancy, requirement for cooling, running water and toilets are being enforced. This program has just begun, many workers continue to live in sub-standard conditions and full compliance is probably a year or so off. But real progress, not just hype as stated in the article, is being made.
    Control of Passports: By law, employers may no longer require workers to surrender their passports. This has created a problem for many workers who do not want to keep their passports in their living quarters for fear of theft. Qatar is now in the process of finding an adequate middle ground that fulfills the needs of the employer, the employee and the international community.
    Kefala Exit Requirements: Qatar has modified the kefala system to prevent fickle or abusive restraints on the ability of workers to leave the country. In the past, a worker had to take a letter from his employer to the Ministry of Interior Passports division granting permission to depart Qatar before the Ministry would issue an exit visa. Now the worker applies directly for an exit visa at the passports office. The passports office notifies the employer of record of the application. Unless the employer registers a legally justified objection within working three days, the passports office issues the requested exit visa.
    Critics have criticized this modification as being no different than the previous regime. I beg to differ. The onus now lies on the employer to demonstrate a legal reason for preventing the worker’s departure. Undoing the kafala regime in its entirety in Qatar and across the region requires undoing and rewriting legislation going back to British occupation in the early 20th century. Under British rule, the sponsor of every visa into the Trucial States assumed financial and legal responsibility for the actions of the person sponsored into the country including for debt and violations of criminal and civil law. This has been both codified and remains precedent in law throughout the GCC. Transferring a worker from one sponsor to another requires transfer of the legal responsibilities. As we know from our own legal systems, undoing seventy or eighty years of law and practice and developing new rules takes time and meets heavy opposition. Qatar and the GCC states are no different, and it is about time that the international community acknowledged this reality.

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