A delegation of the European Parliament, which visited the Qatari capital Doha to assess the situation of migrant workers, said changes to the kafala (sponsorship) system are imminent and might even be in place before September. “We welcome that in different meetings we were told there will be a deep revision of the old system,” said Mario David, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament delegation at a press conference in Doha, according to a transcript provided to Doha News. “It is not up to us to announce what happens but we have been told in the not too distant future this reform will take place.”
The draconian kafala system, maintained in some shape or form across the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations, effectively leaves workers beholden to their employers – who, by law, have to be local citizens. As a result, labour mobility is severely restricted, leaving employees vulnerable to exploitation. In Qatar and Saudi Arabia, workers even have to get the permission of their employers before they are allowed to leave the country. The policy holds not just for manual labourers, who are most often in the news because of the conditions they are forced to work under, but also the substantial expatriate middle class that lives in the Gulf countries.
Altering the policy would mean addressing the imbalance in power between the workers and their employers, by basing the relationship on a contract rather than the kafala model, where a local Arab employer acts as a sponsor. This would ideally leave employees free to move to better jobs within the country rather than being forced to leave it.
The change could take place as soon as September. Local daily The Peninsula reported David saying that the delegation’s talks with various Qatari government committees included suggestions that the new law might be in force when the next European Parliament delegation is expected. “The delegation will report to the European Parliament about its observations in Doha,” David told The Peninsula. “The next [European] Parliament, when it convenes next September, will certainly do a follow-up, but then almost sure, already with the new law.”
This isn’t the first time Qatar has made noises about changing the kafala laws. A taskforce to look into labour reforms was set up a couple of years ago, although it hasn’t publicly announced its recommendations.
“I think if you look at the track record and the announcements that have been made in the past, there has been movement,” Aakash Jayaprakash, a resident of Doha who works on migrant and social justice issues, told Scroll.in. "The PM has said they would be taking a look at the entire sponsorship system and reforming kafala, and in 2012 they set up a task force."
However, locals said that even after the European delegation’s statement, it is still unclear how much progress has been made. They said they would like to see the Qatari authorities themselves explain the planned alternative to the kafala system, rather than just statements that they intend to examine it.
International scrutiny on Qatar has grown in recent months, in part because of the country’s status as host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. There has been a building boom ahead of the event and the Western press has been awash in reports about the numbers of construction workers who have died in the country. Organisations from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International have appealed to the government to ditch the kafala system. The European Parliament even passed a resolution last year calling on FIFA to “send a clear and strong message to Qatar to avoid the football World Cup 2022 [being] delivered by the assistance of modern slavery”.
This week, Deadspin.com’s provocative headline – “Qatar’s World Cup Expected To Take More Lives Than 9/11” – on a story covering the International Trade Union Confederation report projecting more than 4,000 worker deaths between now and 2022, also caused waves. The body organising the World Cup sent a reply to Deadspin questioning both the 9/11 reference, and the worker fatalities estimate.
But change won't come easily. Vani Saraswathi, a journalist based in Doha, said that the government will face significant pushback from the local business community if they try to alter things so quickly. “The statement was made by the previous prime minister internationally saying the kafala has to change, but the local business community has resisted it the most despite the government wanting to do something about it," she said. "There’s definitely a lot more pressure now, but it’s not just on Qatar, it has to be a change implemented across the GCC, since those countries make decisions together as a labour market."
She also pointed out that the international attention connected to the World Cup is a simplification of a very real issue that matters to even the thousands of expats who are not in the country for the football event. "The focus has been so much on the World Cup and construction workers, when there are a lot of other things to consider too, like domestic workers who make up a sizeable chunk of expats,” she said. “So I don’t know if they’ll be able to implement it by September, or if they do, they might just apply a bandage to show intentions if not action…but it’s the whole system that needs to change.”
India, meanwhile, maintains that the number of deaths of its citizens in Qatar is normal, considering the size of the diaspora. The country’s Ministry of External Affairs has traditionally insisted that the kafala system is an internal matter for the Gulf countries. Last year, S Akbaruddin, MEA’s official spokesperson, said that although India has regular discussions on the issue, it is for those countries to decide whether they want to make changes to it.
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