From the TUC

Qatari announcement on World Cup slavery: reform or rebranding?

14 May 2014, By

Today’s announcement by the Qatari Ministry of the Interior contains the dramatic statement that they are “abolishing kafala” – however, it is still hard to tell whether this represents a revolution or a rebranding.

Kafala is the name of the sponsorship system whereby migrant workers in Qatar are entirely beholden to their employer. Workers cannot change jobs, or even leave the country without the express permission of their employer. Employers also frequently confiscate passports to make doubly sure that they control their employees’ movements.

Today’s announcement lands a blow – in principle at least – at the heart of employer power. If the proposals go through (and they must still be approved by two further stages of the legislative process, which in Qatar includes their Chamber of Commerce, expected to be vehemently opposed) then employers will no longer be able to block workers’ exit visas. Instead, an automated government scheme would generate the visas, and employers would have 72 hours to provide “compelling” reasons why the visa should be withdrawn.

Fines for bosses confiscating passports would be boosted five-fold from 10,000 riyals to 50,000 in what officials claim will be a “powerful deterrent to this illegal practice.” However, as the ILO tripartite committee noted, to date no evidence was found of any employer being prosecuted under the current laws. Five times nothing is still nothing.

At the heart of today’s proposals is supposedly a shift from kafala sponsorship to a contractual relationship between employee and employer. At present, while they do have force in Qatar law, employer power renders contracts almost meaningless, with big reductions in pay and conditions often imposed after the migrant arrives to take a new job. In future, all contracts would have to be based on a model contract distributed by the state and any changes would have to be consistent with the new laws.

So, should we be excited? Press reaction has mostly been cagey. Doha News, who live blogged throughout the announcement, note that exit visas are still firmly entrenched in the system and that there is no guarantee these proposals will become law any time soon. Qatar’s own Al Jazeera noted the lack of a timescale for the reforms.  The Guardian’s coverage of the announcement, which they marked with a string of new articles about abuses in Qatar, points out:

“…The speakers were officials rather than ministers – suggesting a lack of confidence in the future of the reform programme.”

Even while these officials were planning their big announcement, the Qatar organising committee was issuing defiant statements that “Contrary to what the international media says there has not been a single injury or death on the World Cup projects.” This PR sophistry ignores the fact that while no actual stadiums have been started yet, practically the whole of Qatar has become a World Cup building site. The final, for example, is scheduled to take place in a city that does not yet exist. Some senior Qatari officials clearly cling to the belief that they have nothing to reform.

Qatar has plenty of labour laws, very few of which – according to the ILO report – seem to be enforced. Although the officials made positive noises today about unions, stating that they “believe in the right of workers to have trade unions and their own associations,” no reforms on freedom of association were announced, so migrants will still be unable to form or join one. Without trade unions monitoring workplaces it is difficult to imagine even the promised army of 300 new labour inspectors really being able to hold the nation’s employers to account, particularly in a country where they have enjoyed absolute power for so long.

If kafala really is stumbling towards the exit it will be cause for celebration, but Qatar has developed a record of making cosmetic alterations to their laws to indicate progress that doesn’t exist in reality and it will take an awful lot more than this to convince its critics – including the international trade union movement – that it is serious about stamping out the daily abuses faced by so many of Qatar’s 1.8 million migrant workers.