OpinionRegionsWorldReforming human and labor rights in the Gulf Region —the Qatar example

It is believed that Qatar’s novel reforms which began in 2017will ultimately open a fresh vista for more friendly, humane, and better migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf Region.

Qatar is one of the seven Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. Others include Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These nations are also known as the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) countries, and a common thread runs through them all: the world’s largest oil and gas reserves are domiciled there.

But beyond their buoyant economy and huge oil and gas reserves, these predominantly Islamic states are seen by many as not been too proactive in terms of their human and labor rights records, most especially as they relate to migrant workers who are mostly of African descent.

Also, these Arab nations have been accused of violating women’s rights and those of the LGBTs that borders on extreme conservatism.

But most vehement, these Gulf States have come under intense global criticisms for operating the very oppressive, exploitative, and dehumanizing Kafala employment system.

The Kafala, or sponsorship system ‘’defines the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor or Kafeel, which is usually their employer. The system further ties the migrant workers to a sponsor who has the right to grant the employees exit permits. (right to leave the job or country for new employment or state)

And due to this widely criticized oppressive migrant labor system (Kafala), the Gulf States have been vilified by many bodies and organizations, calling on them to reform their human and labor laws in sync with best global practices.

For instance, International football teams recently protested human rights abuses in Qatar ahead of next year’s World Cup finals in that country, by wearing protest T-shirts ahead of qualifiers matches. However, the protest was criticized by many as hypocritical, given the fact that many of the protesting players and their employers were directly or indirectly linked with Qatar’s major companies, and that Qatar was ahead of other Gulf States in terms of human and labor rights reforms.

But a few others posit that despite Qatar’s leading role in human and migrant labor rights, the players’ protest was timely and welcome since it was aimed at drawing the attention of the world and the Gulf States that it is not yet Uhuru in terms of consolidating friendly- labor laws in the region. To draw home the imperativeness of the protest, David Harding in an article in Independent newspaper, titled: Accusing footballers of hypocrisy for protesting about human right abuses in Qatar rather misses the point’ said ‘’we should be applauding footballers –who have had little in the way of leadership from national politicians and Fifa- for taking a stand, as part of a new age of protest in sport, stretching from Colin Kaepernick through to Black Lives Matter.’’

It is, however, interesting to say here, that it is not all a gloomy picture or sorry tale in terms of  human and labor rights abuses in the Gulf States, as Qatar has rolled out far-reaching laws aimed at ending labor-related discriminatory policies in the country.

Still, it is believed that Qatar’s novel reforms which began in 2017will ultimately open a fresh vista for more friendly, humane, and better migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf Region. Such Qatar’s landmark reforms include the abolition of exit permits for migrant workers; establishment of a new national minimum wage; setting up of minimum age commission, among others.

And major international bodies like the International Labour Organisation(ILO) European Union, (EU), the African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC –Africa), among others have applauded Qatar’s reforms initiative.

For instance, in a commendation letter dated September 6, 2018, and signed by its General Secretary, Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, the ITUC-Africa wrote, “We welcome the recent announcement by the Qatar government to abolish exit permits for migrant workers. We commend the Qatar government for the obvious show of genuine commitment towards meeting her pledge made to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to effectively reform her labor laws so as to bring them in conformity with ILO Conventions and other international statutes. Indeed, since August 2017, Qatar has commenced a holistic review of her Labour Codes to rid them of vestiges that facilitate and promote human and labor rights abuses. This development is particularly welcome for Africa because many of her labor migrants to the GCC states have been subjected to all manner of exploitation, abuse, and slave practices on account of the exit permit, which is one of the elements of the kafala sponsorship system for labor recruitment in the GCC states.

The statement added: “We call on other GCC states and Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman to undertake similar reforms to their labor codes with the view to protect and secure the rights of workers, especially migrant workers who constitute the majority of the workforce. In particular, ITUC-Africa is of the view that a genuine labor code review by Saudi Arabia, being the biggest GCC economy, will send a positive and inspirational signal to the other members of the GCC states to also commit to reform like Qatar is doing”

In the same vein, the ITUC-Africa last year commended Qatar for further reforms by removing restrictions to migrant workers’ ability to change employers at their choice and the establishment of a new minimum wage.

The ITUC-Africa on September 7, 2020, wrote, “ We welcome the news of the amendment of the labor laws in Qatar to remove restrictions to migrant workers’ ability to change employers at their choosing following a notice period. We understand that the removal of employers’ permission and consent for employees to change jobs and employers is with immediate effect. The removal of the employer permission regime will make employment relations more humane. It will also significantly eliminate the slavery-like relationship tied to the kafala sponsorship employment system. 

It must be restated here that the Gulf State of Qatar also established a new national minimum wage, which is to be enjoyed by all categories of workers. This new minimum wage now stands at QAR 1800 (493USD) for workers who are not provided with food and accommodation by their employers. Those that enjoy employers’ provision of decent accommodation but no food will earn QAR 1500 (410 USD). Migrant workers whose employers provide food and accommodation will earn a minimum wage of 1000 QAR (274 USD). All workers without discrimination will enjoy the national minimum wage. 

The ITUC-Africa further noted that the laws carry good application and enforcement timelines and compelling sanctions in the event of default by employers. Specifically, the government of Qatar has given employers up to six months to comply with the new regulations. Failure to comply with the implementation directives will attract sanctions, which include suspending the operations of the company and suspending individual operations for those employing domestic workers. 

“We further welcome Qatar’s establishment of a Minimum Wage Commission that will periodically review the national minimum wage rate. Subsequent reviews are to be based on evidence of the cost of living and are to take into account the responsibilities of migrant workers to their families at home. ITUC-Africa commends these developments as an apparent commitment by the government of Qatar towards better protection of the human and labor rights of workers, the majority of whom are migrant workers. ITUC-Africa added”

Most commendable, at a recent workshop held to assess the level of success on Qatar’s ‘migrant reforms’, as contained in the West Minister Report, experts from international organizations and government officials lauded the progress made so far by the country, just as they opined that much needed to be done to achieve the desired goals.

The participants stressed the need for international collaboration among the EU, ILO, trade unions and employers, etc. to further sustain the gains of the reforms.

‘’This is a success model that we need to replicate across the GCC countries. In addition, it is obvious that we should not denigrate the importance of labor inspection and occupational safety and health. It has to be considered as a priority,’’ a participant advised.

At that all-important forum, the need to effectively engage the private sector was also emphasized. The participants further cautioned that without the private sector’s role in the migrant reforms, that not much progress will be achieved since the employers hold to key to better working conditions. They added that coordination and cooperation between the various organizations are central to sustainable labor reforms in the GCC countries.

For the Qatar Ambassador Representative at the parley, Hassan AL-Thawadi, he said ‘’Qatar’s commitment to improving labor-related matters and improving lives is constant. The commitment is intrinsic to our national values enshrined in our constitution and is the key tenet to our Islamic principles.’’

He added: ’’reforms combined with bolstered enforcement mechanisms including electronic-based age protection system demonstrates a commitment to sustainable long-term change. However, we acknowledge that there is a long journey ahead of us and more needs to be done as the case in every nation of the world. In some countries still, it is not possible to change employers without permission, but in Qatar, it is possible’’

On the issue of discriminatory migrant workers law in the GCC countries and Qatar’s leading role to change the sad narrative, a Research Fellow at Micheal Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies, Ilorin, Dr. Wale Ojo, commended Qatar’s initiative to bring an end to discriminatory migrant workers policies, adding that other GCC countries such take clue from Qatar in that direction. He added that much needed be done to ensure a better and humane work environment in GCC countries as obtainable in Europe and North America.

‘’This issue of oppressive migrant labor conditions in the Gulf Region has been there for ages. Maybe because of their Islamic nature, most of the GCC states are averse to far-reaching reforms and have in place unacceptable migrant labor policies. However, l must laud Qatar for spearheading the migrant labor reforms initiative, and believe the time has come to put necessary international pressure on other  GCC states to toe Qatar’s line, and key into more humane and workers’ rights policies,’’ Ojo stressed.  

From the foregoing, it is beyond contention that Qatar has taken the lead in ushering in more humane and realistic human and labor rights reforms in the Gulf Region, but the big question is: can Qatar sustain this laudable program and throw up the challenge to its sister GCC states to follow suit? – Our fears and expectations are buried in the womb of time!

♦ Kenneth Smith writes from Hamburg, Germany. To reach him directly, email >>>

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