Labour exploitation in the Qatari context is inextricably linked to migrant work, mainly due to the fact that there are an estimated 1.2 million migrant workers in Qatar, who make up 94% of the country’s workforce and 88% of the total population. The majority of these workers have migrated to Qatar from South and South-East Asia, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka to work as low- and semi-skilled workers, primarily in construction, services and domestic work.
After their arrival in Qatar, some workers face exploitative labour conditions, working excessive hours, without rest, for little or no pay, and under hazardous working conditions. Much has been reported about the level of accidents on construction sites and unsafe working conditions resulting in injury or death. Other frequently reported cases of abuse against migrant workers include wage manipulation, confiscation of passports, substitution of contracts, refusal to give exit permits to leave the country, or “no objection” certificates which would allow migrants to change employer, and refusal to pay migrants’ plane tickets to return home. Moreover, living conditions in labour camps are often very poor and in violation of Qatari law.
Labour Recruitment and the kafala system
The main law governing migration in Qatar is Law No. 4 of 2009-Regarding Regulation of Expatriates’ Entry, Departure, Residence and Sponsorship (the Sponsorship or Kafala Law). The kafala system regulates the relationship between employers and migrants in Qatar. Article 18 of the Law provides that each expatriate granted an entry visa to Qatar shall have a sponsor, and ties migrants’ visa status and work permits to the sponsor, who is often also the employer (although this is not always the case).
Under this system, migrants are required to stay with their employer, and cannot change employers unless they can obtain a “no objection” certificate from their employer. Migrants who leave their employers without a “no objection” certificate are charged with absconding and labelled “runaways”. As a result, migrants lose their residence permits and face fines, deportation and prison. Furthermore, under the Sponsorship Law, migrants can only leave the country with an exit permit issued by their sponsor.
The Sponsorship Law of 2009 replaced a law from 1963. It includes some positive legislative developments, such as a provision that makes it illegal for sponsors to confiscate their employees’ passports. It also allows for a change of sponsor in certain cases (i.e. in cases of abuse by the employer), and provides that the Ministry of Interior can provide an exit permit to the migrant if the sponsor who refuses to do so does not have a case against the migrant before the courts. However, this law is not effectively enforced, according to recent studies conducted by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute Despite laws against passport confiscation, 86 to 90 percent of expatriate workers’ passports are in their employers’ possession. While most employers are in violation of the Sponsorship Law, only 27 sponsors were fined in 2013-2014 for withholding passports and none in 2015. According to the US Trafficking in Persons Report, so far the government’s primary solution for resolving labour violations has been to transfer a worker’s sponsorship to a new employer with minimal effort to investigate whether the violations constituted forced labor.
The Award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar in 2010 has resulted in intense international pressure on the Qatari government to reform the Kafala law. In October 2015, Qatar adopted Law 21 of 2015, making limited changes to the sponsorship model. However this new law will not enter into force until October 2016. Furthermore, the employer will continue to play a significant role in regulating the departure of employees. Under the new law, instead of directly requesting the sponsor for approval, foreign workers who wish to leave the country must inform the Ministry of Interior at least three business days before their exit. The Ministry will then wait for the sponsor’s approval or objection before permitting the exit. A new system to appeal refused exit permits before the Ministry of Interior if the sponsor objects has also been established. The new law will allow foreign workers with fixed term contracts to change employers after completion of their contract. Migrant workers with permanent contracts, however, will only be able to change employers after five years in continuous employment, and subject to obtaining approval from the employer and the Ministry. Furthermore, if a foreign worker is dismissed on disciplinary grounds, and does not appeal against his dismissal, or if his appeal is rejected by the Court, the foreign worker will not be allowed to return to Qatar for four years.
Several provisions of the Qatari Criminal Code criminalize forced labour or practices directly connected with the exaction of forced labour – including Art. 322, on forcing a person to work with or without a salary, and Art. 321 on slavery. Trafficking in persons is criminalized in Qatar under Law No. 15 of 2011 on Combatting Human Trafficking, and punished with imprisonment for a maximum term of 7 years and a fine of up to 250,000 Qatar Riyals, and in particular aggravating circumstances, it can result in a maximum fine of 300,000 Qatar Riyals and up to 15 years imprisonment. This law imports its definition of human trafficking from the UN Human Trafficking Protocol. Art. 22 establishes the liability of corporations and legal persons for crimes of human trafficking committed by their employees or representatives in their name and for their interest. However, Qatar has never prosecuted any exploitative employers or recruitment agencies under the 2011 anti-trafficking law.
The Labour Law of 2004 regulates the employment of all workers, except certain excluded categories. The Labour Law provides some rights and protections for workers, such as provisions regarding occupational safety and health, regular payment of wages, working hours, overtime and weekly rest. The Law also stipulates that every employment contract must be approved by the Ministry of Labour, and establishes the requirements of such contracts, specifying that employment contracts for a limited duration cannot exceed 5 years and that employers are prohibited from demanding workers to perform work different from what they had agreed in the contract.
However, the Labour Law of 2004 does not provide for a minimum wage, it bans migrants from forming organizations and from collective bargaining and it excludes domestic workers, workers in agriculture and seafarers, among others, from its application. While the Law contains penalties for violations regarding occupational safety and health, working time and rest, it does not contain any penalties for violations relating to payment of wages and employment contracts. The Labour Law of 2004 instituted a ban on recruitment fees. However, recruitment agencies circumvent the law by exploiting the legal loophole that allows them to deal with agencies charging recruitment fees in the migrants’ home countries.
In February 2015, Qatar introduced Law No. (1) of 2015, amending some provisions of the Labour Act. Under the new provisions, companies will be required to pay their employees through direct bank transfers. This mechanism seeks to address the issue of non-payment or withholding of wages, by allowing migrant workers and the government to better scrutinize and document any late or non-existing payments. Employers in violation of the amendment could face jail time of up to one month and fines of 2,000 to 6,000 Qatar Riyals.
There are different complaint mechanisms available to migrants, which can be accessed through the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Interior, the National Human Rights Committee, or directly at the labour court. However, migrants have difficulties accessing these mechanisms, partly due to a lack of information, of legal aid and interpreters, fear of sponsor’s reactions, fear of losing their jobs and being detained and deported. Moreover, access to the labour court is difficult, migrants have to pay a fee to file a case and getting a decision takes several months. The Labour Law provides that lawsuits filed by workers shall be exempted from judicial fees. However, most migrants are required to pay 600 riyals to file a case, reportedly to cover the cost of an expert opinion. This is money migrants often do not have, especially given that many of the complaints by migrants relate to the non-payment of wages.Back to top