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Often compared to modern-day slavery, the Kafala is according to labor advocates, the most indignant employment system for migrant workers in the Middle East region.
United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) announced that in January, Qatar will put an end to the Kafala or employment sponsorship system, among other labor reforms for migrant rights in the region.
“These steps will greatly support the rights of migrant workers while contributing to a more efficient and productive economy,” the ILO said.
The ILO which has been working with Qatar since 2017, said the country’s council of ministers agreed to end the Kafala and introduce “a non-discriminatory minimum wage, the first in the Middle East.”
When Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, attention increased on the country’s treatment of migrant workers, leading it to finally accept to cooperate with the U.N. employment rights agency to carry out improvements.
Another reform involves the level of the minimum wage that will be set later this year, which aims to end discrimination based on nationality, according to the ILO. The reform is a critical one considering that Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world and that its majority construction, service-industry, and domestic workers are paid extremely low wages.
On the other hand, human rights groups are increasingly raising the alarm on the dangers of working in Qatar a large part of the year when humidity and heat are intense. Hundreds of deaths of young men, who were previously in healthy condition, have suffered heart attacks due to heat stress.
The ILO along with the Qatari government released a study last week on heat stress, concluding that workers could safely work outdoors during prescribed hours if appropriate precautionary measures were taken.
The governments in the region have repeatedly promised to abolish or reform their labor laws involving migrant workers, however, very few changes have been made so far, leading human rights advocate Nicholas McGeehan to say the reported employment reforms should be viewed cautiously until their actual implementation.
Human rights groups have been campaigning for years for the abolition of the Kafala system widespread in the Gulf where millions of migrants workers, mostly from South or Southeast Asian or Africa, work in dire conditions.
Described as a system of control, the Kafala is a way for Gulf states to hand over responsibility for migrants to private individuals or companies. The system gives these sponsors a set of legal powers to control the workers.
Without the employer’s consent, migrant workers cannot quit or change jobs, or leave the country. If a worker acts without permission, his employer has the ability to cancel his or her visa, automatically making them undocumented residents in the country, with all the consequences that may follow.