Qatar’s failure to push through its long mooted reforms to the insidious kafala system has left the country’s attempt to portray itself as a slow moving but sincere reformer in tatters.
In May 2014, Qatar promised to abolish kafala, the sponsorship system that ties workers to employers and leaves them unable to change jobs or even leave the country with that employer’s express permission. Since this power is often used to override what existing workers’ rights exist in Qatar, the main demand from campaigning organisations, from Amnesty International to the ITUC, was for its immediate removal.
Qatar’s proposed response fell a long way short of what those organisations demanded, but the reforms just about qualified as “better than nothing”, and at the least could be used as a gauge of Qatar’s seriousness when it came to easing its iron grip on migrant workers’ freedom.
Over the following months, Qatar provided regular excuses for the failure to deliver. Although the Emir himself was “personally hurt” by the plight of migrant workers, the Minister of Labour, Abdulla al-Khulaifi, said that Qatar was “moving as fast as the system allows” and that it would “take time as in any other country in the world.”
Earlier this month, the kafala reforms were the centrepiece of Qatar’s defence at the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO committee dedicated to examining breaches of international labour standards was investigating Qatar for alleged forced labour. In response, Qatar pointed to the draft law as evidence of progress. Only weeks later, even this half-hearted reform has proved to be a hollow promise.
Next up is Qatar’s pledge to introduce a new law requiring employers to pay their workers electronically to combat the abysmal record of non-payment of wages. It’s possible that this one might actually slip onto the statute books, if only because – unlike the changes to the exit visa – this law would require active enforcement by the government before it inconvenienced businesses, not something on which Qatar has a particularly strong track record.
If the Shura council, an appointed body with strong business representation, really are the stumbling block to reform, Qatar could still proceed at pace to properly enforce existing laws and resource both its courts and its labour inspection system without any further legislation. If it fails to “play by the rules” – even its own ones – we will know for certain that Qatar never had any intention of ending the appalling abuse of its workers.