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Qatar enacts minimum wage, worker reforms as FIFA World Cup nears

Bloomberg August 31 | Updated on August 31, 2020 Published on August 31, 2020

Becomes first nation in Gulf Cooperation Council to introduce such labour reform

Qatar has announced new labour-market reforms as it seeks to quell criticism around the treatment of migrant workers in the lead-up to the 2022 soccer World Cup.

The rules will allow workers to take new jobs without their current employers approval; impose a permanent, universal minimum wage; and beef up enforcement systems around labour protections that are overseen by the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (ADLSA), according to a statement.

The changes are part of an attempt to end the country’s kafala sponsorship system, under which employers can restrict foreign workers’ ability to take new jobs and maintain residency.

The announcement makes Qatar the first country in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to introduce a permanent, minimum wage for foreigners, and puts it ahead of its neighbours in offering flexibility for non-citizens to transfer jobs. Qatar is perhaps the GCC state most heavily dependent on foreign labour with expatriate workers comprising 95 per cent of the workforce.

Yousuf Mohamed Al Othman Fakhroo, the ADLSA Minister, said these newly announced laws demonstrated the government’s interest in creating a modern and dynamic labour market that will encourage competition for the best talent.

What’s on offer

Under the new rules, workers changing jobs will be guaranteed benefits like end-of-service payments and travel to their home countries as long as they give what the law considers adequate written notice of their intended transfer — one month for employees with less than two years tenure, and two months for those who’ve been employed longer. Penalties may apply if employees don’t give the required notice, and employers may be able to impose other conditions in workers’ contracts.

Full-time workers of all nationalities and professions will be guaranteed a salary of at least 1,000 Qatari riyals ($272) per month, in addition to accommodation and food payments worth 500 riyals and 300 riyals, respectively. Employers who provide workers with food and accommodation won’t have to pay these expenses separately. They’ll have six months to bring existing contracts into compliance with the new rules.

Officials first previewed elements of this reform package last October, but didn’t secure full approval for the measures before restrictions meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19 shut down much of the economy.

Kafala dismantled

“This new law, coupled with the removal of exit permit requirements earlier in the year, effectively dismantles the kafala sponsorship system and marks the beginning of a new era for the Qatari labour market,” the International Labour Organization said in a statement. The group is in the final stretch of a three-year cooperation agreement with the Qatari government.

Qatar has faced withering criticism from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch over conditions faced by migrant labourers, particularly construction workers involved in building stadiums and infrastructure in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

While the country has introduced a series of changes meant to modernise its labour market and improve workers’ living conditions, the two groups have alleged that poor employer compliance and time-consuming red tape have left workers destitute even after they’ve complained about poor treatment through official channels. Although Qatari laws no longer permit employers to confiscate employee passports and ban employment agencies from charging often exorbitant recruitment fees, recent reports from both groups allege these practices continue.

Stricter penalties

The Qatari ministry said its latest reforms included stricter penalties for employers who don’t pay their workers or who don’t provide adequate accommodation. Its also working to expand inspections and strengthen an existing wage-protection system, according to the statement.

While the new measures may increase protections for workers, they aren’t likely to eliminate the dramatic disparity between the lives of Qatari citizens — among the wealthiest in the world — white-collar Western expatriates, and migrant labourers.

A July UN report implored the Qatari government to take urgent steps to dismantle what is in effect a quasi-caste system based on national origin. The report recommended that the country to pass racial discrimination laws and introduce immigration reforms in addition to amending labour rules.

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Published on August 31, 2020
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