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Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail stadium which will be build for the upcoming 2022 Fifa soccer World Cup during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, December 20, 2019.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Social protection, not just legal protection: Migrant laborers in the Gulf

Recent developments in labor reforms across the Gulf countries are encouraging signs of a much-needed overhaul of protective systems for migrant laborers. Qatar’s winning bid to host the 2022 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup drew significantly more attention to the plight of migrant laborers in the country.

 The COVID-19 pandemic drew renewed attention to issues of social protection of migrant workers in Qatar and the wider Gulf region. While legislative changes aiming to improve the living and working conditions of migrant laborers have been taking place across the Gulf, their actual impact has been mixed.As the Gulf states attempt to transition to knowledge-based economies, it is imperative that they ramp up efforts to ensure that labor reforms, including social protection schemes, meaningfully benefit the majority of the population that contributes to their economic growth: migrant laborers. While social protection can be construed in several ways, it is primarily a set of public policies that aim to protect against economic and social distress.2 In the Gulf context, the focus of such policies should be on protection against unemployment and low or unpaid wages, as well as access to remedies for contract violations. Low-skilled migrant laborers are a substantial segment of working migrants who require such social protection the most.3 The heavy interdependence of foreign laborers and Gulf nationals requires that social protection measures are implemented with a view to ensuring long-term impact and sustainability. However, legal protection does not automatically ensure actual enforcement.

This policy note presents three key requirements for transforming legislative labor reforms from a predominantly “on paper” existence to one that is increasingly enforced and practiced. Crucially, these requirements are only effective when pursued together as opposed to in isolation from each other. First, there must be enforceable social protection provisions in bilateral labor agreements and in employment contracts, along with more effective state-run enforcement mechanisms. These are important in order to mitigate the ability of employers to escape accountability for violations of labor laws. Secondly, a socialization of reforms that targets the tripartite nexus of the notorious Gulf kafala, or sponsorship, system—the migrant worker, the employer, and the state—is needed.4 Finally, the establishment of localized monitoring and evaluation tools would ensure higher quality and context-specific research on labor policy reform. This would in turn enhance knowledge of what works and what does not work in context-specific cases across the Gulf, producing rigorous research to better inform policy recommendations that benefit migrant workers and the state. As significant reforms have increasingly been undertaken in Qatar, especially following momentum to pursue changes in light of the country’s role as host to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, this note will begin by outlining some of the notable developments in labor reforms there. This will be followed by an explanation of why the three interconnected requirements outlined above are necessary not only in the Qatari context, but across the Gulf region as well.

Recent Developments in Labor Reforms: Qatar

The majority of reforms to Qatar’s labor laws since 2014 have aimed to ease the mobility of migrant laborers as well as to bring national legislation in line with international labor standards. Law No. 13 (2018) removed the exit permit requirement, whereby foreign laborers were not able to leave the country without permission from their employer beforehand.5 This was extended to domestic workers by way of Ministerial Decision No. 95 in 2019, which allows them to leave the country after notifying their employers at least 72 hours prior to their departure.6 Law No. 21 (2015) made it illegal for employers or sponsors to withhold passports of foreign nationals. Though the problem of employers withholding passports persists, this practice has seen a declining trend in recent years.7

A significant development in Qatar’s labor law came with the adoption of Law No. 19 (2020), which allows migrant workers to change jobs before the end of their contract without first having to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from their employer. The NOC system left foreign employees at the mercy of their employers when seeking employment elsewhere. It was a central feature of the kafala system, which essentially shackled migrant workers to their sponsor or employer, leading to exploitative practices that violate international human rights laws and international labor standards. Domestic workers, who long operated within a legal vacuum as labor laws were not applicable to them, finally obtained legal protection in the form of Law No. 15 (2017), which regulates the relationship between domestic workers and their employers and grants them rights that were not previously specified.8

That same year, Qatar passed Law No. 13 (2017), allowing for the establishment of labor dispute committees, which offer a mechanism through which workers and employers could settle their disputes.9 In May 2021, Ministerial Decree 17 was issued, providing heat stress protection for those whose work must be done outdoors. The decree prohibits work in outdoor spaces between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. from June 1 to September 15.10 Finally, a number of reforms aimed at protecting wage payment, introducing a non-discriminatory minimum wage,  and establishing the Workers Support and Insurance Fund, were introduced.11

Leveraging Enforcement to Tackle a Culture of Employer Impunity

While these reforms are encouraging and have even been hailed as historic in “dismantling” the kafala system, the lack of enforcement is pervasive, and impunity remains endemic.12 The problem of non-compliance is largely a problem that lies with employers who fail to fulfill their obligations toward their employees. Lack of enforcement of legal and social protection measures is a major challenge from which migrant laborers suffer across the Gulf region.13 Legal protection does not automatically ensure enforcement. Mechanisms that aim to ensure abidance by international best practices, while also ensuring that legislative and policy reforms make sense in the unique contexts of each Gulf state, are critical. The opening of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Project Office in Qatar in April 2018, which is the first in the Gulf region, is a significant concrete step that has facilitated such efforts.

Nevertheless, few bilateral labor agreements signed between sending and receiving states include social protection provisions, allowing recruitment agencies and employers to abuse the rights of migrant workers. For example, neither the 2013 Saudi Arabia-Philippines agreement on domestic workers’ recruitment nor the 2008 Qatar-Sri Lanka agreement concerning Sri Lankan manpower employment in Qatar include adequate and accessible social protection provisions for migrant workers.14 Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore the severely disproportionate suffering of migrant laborers at the hands of the deadly virus, especially given their cramped living and working conditions, which allowed the virus to flourish.15

The underlying vulnerabilities experienced by migrant workers extend beyond the pandemic, however. Given strict health policies that require all migrant workers to undergo health screening before they are granted a visa and the ability to gain employment in the Gulf, there is a social stigma surrounding the health of low-skilled migrant workers in particular and their ability to maintain employment. This stigma in part entails a reluctance among migrant laborers “around admitting ill-health, to their employers and supervisors,” for fear of losing their jobs.16 Following the social and economic fall-out since the onset of COVID-19, Gulf states can no longer afford to exclude migrant workers from adequate access to national health frameworks. As Zahra Babar notes:

There has not been a great deal of effort on the part of the [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC host states to mainstream labor migrants’ health needs into national health policy frameworks [which is essential] when such a large population of migrants as in the GCC are present…there is no global commitment among state and international bodies that bind them to certain health outcomes for migrants.17

Enforcement mechanisms thus must take into account both living and working conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf, especially as low-skilled migrant laborers’ accommodation is often provided by their employers.

The involvement of international organizations such as the ILO and the role it has played in Qatar are instrumental in ensuring domestic legislation and practice is in line with international standards. However, bilateral labor agreements that address social protection measures are also an important channel through which migrant workers could more effectively claim their social, economic, and health rights. Through more robust bilateral labor agreements, longer-term benefits for migrant laborers could be introduced, such as sudden economic hardship relief (i.e., unemployment) and pensions. While there may be little incentive for sending states to develop such policies, advocacy groups such as unions in the sending states must prioritize the issue of social protection for migrant laborers and apply pressure on sending states to ensure that their citizens benefit from these basic international standards of social and economic security. This is especially important for low-skilled migrant laborers, who experience greater vulnerabilities stemming from marginalization in receiving states as non-citizens, and from economic and social hardship.

Socialization of Labor Reforms: An Opportunity in the Post-COVID-19 Era

However, enforcement mechanisms and bilateral labor agreements on their own are not enough. A socialization of labor reforms that targets the tripartite nexus of the notorious Gulf kafala system—the migrant worker, the employer, and the state—is needed. In the absence of context-specific social movements that work towards the social protection of migrant workers, such socialization would need to take place through alternative means. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring worker representation in policy reform processes and in monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. In April 2019, Qatar issued a decree that allows for the establishment of Joint Committees, whereby workers in companies with 30 or more employees elect their own representatives to discuss workplace issues with management.18 In June 2021, Qatar’s largest public transport provider, Mowasalat, held its first Joint Committee elections to support dialogue between workers and management.19 It remains to be seen whether such Joint Committees will effectively impact policy reform, or whether they will provide an opportunity to discuss the impact of legislative reforms on migrant workers in the workplace. Such efforts, however, are important for fostering an environment conducive to engaging in social dialogue about issues that directly impact migrant laborers. They could also contribute to “reducing tensions between nationals and non-nationals and promoting social cohesion.”20

Such socialization of labor reforms, however, presents a difficult challenge that relates to the implicit social contract between Gulf nationals and their states. As Mustafa Qadri explains, this challenge puts the state in a position where it must balance “the need to maintain a social contract based on an imbalance in labor relations in favor of employers and business owners, who are overwhelmingly citizens, with its international obligations to respect core aspects of human rights and labor rights and the need to respond to a global market increasingly sensitive to rights protections.”21 While Qadri’s discussion focuses on the United Arab Emirates, his observations are relevant to the rest of the GCC, where a similar social contract between the state and citizen exists: one that “effectively promises the latter a ready source of revenue and significant control over migrant labor in return for reduced social and political freedoms.”22 The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unparalleled opportunity to tackle negative stereotypes of migrant workers as well as the structural inequalities they face due to the discriminatory application of social protection schemes. Without changes targeting society, such as cultivating a respect for the rule of law as well as empathy for others at the family level, the prospects for meaningful and long-lasting change with regards to the social protection of migrant workers will remain limited.23

Less Sensationalist, Better Informed: The Need for Representative Monitoring and Evaluation

Few mechanisms systematically assess the impact of policy reform on migrant workers in the Gulf. Instead, sensationalist headlines and reports that tend to draw conclusions based on anecdotal interviews overlook both deeper, structural problems and positive trends that are not—but should be—newsworthy. The establishment of localized monitoring and evaluation tools, such as the Qatar Guest Workers’ Welfare Index (GWWI) developed by the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI), would ensure higher quality and context-specific research on labor policy reform. This would, in turn, enhance knowledge of what works and what does not work in context-specific cases across the Gulf, producing rigorous research and policy recommendations that benefit migrant workers and the state.

Abdoulaye Diop et al. emphasize that without valid indicators, it is difficult to gauge the effect of legislative reforms on “the actual lives of workers.”24 They discuss the example of the practice involving the withholding of passports in Qatar, whereby employers or sponsors retain their employees’ passports, which is illegal as per Law No. 21 (2015).25 In a SESRI survey conducted in 2014, more than one-third of the migrant worker respondents said they voluntarily handed their passport to their employer for safekeeping, as they feared for the security of their passports in the labor camp where they reside. Consequently, as Diop et al. observe, the “solution to passport withholding is not only informing workers about their rights or forcing employers not to retain passports against the will of the worker, but also improving the security of their accommodations.26 This example demonstrates the importance of not only ensuring that adequate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, such as the GWWI, are in place, but that migrant laborers are consistently afforded the opportunity to explain the nuances of their situation. Without such vital input from migrant laborers in such mechanisms, policy reforms will remain misguided.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully clear that not all 7.8 billion inhabitants of the planet are in the same boat. While COVID-19 does not discriminate and has impacted both rich and poor and everyone in between, the underlying difficult living and working conditions of migrant laborers in the Gulf have made it increasingly clear that they suffer disproportionately. Work and accommodation conditions are inextricably tied to labor laws and policies in the Gulf. The migrant laborer-employer-state nexus is one that maintains the kafala system that has overwhelmingly favored the interests of employers at the expense of employees’ social, economic, and human rights. As countries continue to grapple with geopolitical, economic, and public health policy challenges, the post COVID-19 era presents an especially opportune time to address ways to ensure long-term social protection that will aid Gulf states in transitioning to sustainable knowledge-based economies. The focus on legislative and policy reforms thus far have been encouraging in the Gulf. However, they cannot generate meaningful impact without effective enforcement mechanisms domestically and in bilateral labor agreements, socialization of reforms into society, and context-specific monitoring and evaluation tools that are representative of workers’ complex experiences.

 

Footnotes

  1. Vani Saraswathi, “The Kafala is alive and kicking…migrants where it hurts most,” Migrant-Rights.Org, October 29, 2020, www.migrant-rights.org/2020/10/the-kafala-is-alive-and-kicking-migrants-where-it-hurts-most/.  
  2. Migrant Forum in Asia, “Social Protection for Low-Skilled Migrant Workers and their Families,” Policy Brief No. 7, September 2013, www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/137/PB7.pdf.  
  3. Ibid.
  4. For more on the kafala system, see Migration Forum in Asia, “Reform of the Kafala (Sponsorship) System,” Policy Brief no. 2, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf.
  5. International Labour Organization (ILO), “Law No. 13 of 2018 amending certain provisions of Law No. 21 of 2015 in relation to organizing the entry and exit of expatriates and their residence,” October 23, 2018, http://ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=en&p_isn=107340.  
  6. Qatar Government Communications Office, “Labour Reform,” www.gco.gov.qa/en/focus/labour-reform/.
  7. Abdoulaye Diop and others, “Welfare Index of Migrant Workers in the Gulf: the Case of Qatar,” International Migration 58, no. 4 (August 2020), pp. 140–53, https://doi.org/10.1111/imig.12667.
  8. ILO, “Law No. 15 of 2017 concerning Domestic Workers,” August 22, 2017, www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=en&p_isn=105099&p_count=8&p_classification=22.  
  9. ILO, “Law No. 13 of 2017 which amends several provisions of the Labour Law promulgated by Law No. 14 of 2004 and Law No. 13 of 1990 which promulgates the Civil and Commercial Proceedings Law,” August 16, 2017, www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=en&p_isn=104948&p_count=1&p_classification=01.02.  
  10. Government Communications Office, “Labour Reform,” https://www.gco.gov.qa/en/focus/labour-reform/.
  11. On protecting wage payment: A Wage Protection System (WPS) was established in 2015, requiring employers to pay salaries directly into their employees’ bank accounts, as opposed to in cash, in an effort to track failure to pay salaries. Problems remain, however. See ILO Project Office for the State of Qatar, “Assessment of the Wage Protection System in Qatar,” June 2019, www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---arabstates/---ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_726174.pdf; On introducing a non-discriminatory minimum wage, see: ILO, “Law No. 17 of 2020 Determining the National Minimum Wage for Workers and Domestic Workers,” September 8, 2020, www.ilo.org/beirut/projects/qatar-office/WCMS_754880/lang--en/index.htm. This law establishes a minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275) and requires employers to pay allowances of at least 300 riyals to cover food expenses and 500 riyals to cover housing costs, if neither are provided by employers. The minimum wage is ‘non-discriminatory’ in the sense that it applies to all workers of all nationalities and in all sectors, including domestic workers, who were previously excluded from labor laws; On the establishment of the Workers Support and Insurance Fund, see: ILO, “Law No. 17 of 2018 Establishing the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund,” November 19, 2018, www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=en&p_isn=107337&p_count=13&p_classification=01.02.
  12. ILO, “Dismantling the kafala system and introducing a minimum wage mark new era for Qatar labour market,” August 30, 2020, https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_754391/lang--en/index.htm.  
  13. Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, “Challenges to corporate accountability in the Gulf: Tracking labour abuse in a climate of near impunity,” December 18, 2019, https://www.business-humanrights.org/de/blog/challenges-to-corporate-accountability-in-the-gulf-tracking-labour-abuse-in-a-climate-of-near-impunity/.
  14. Clara van Panhuys, Samia Kazi-Aoul, Geneviève Binette, “Migrant access to social protection under Bilateral Labour Agreements: A review of 120 countries and nine bilateral arrangements,” ILO, Extension of Social Security Working Paper no. 57, 2017, www.social-protection.org/gimi/gess/RessourcePDF.action?ressource.ressourceId=54405.  
  15. See Omer Karasapan, “Pandemic highlights the vulnerability of migrant workers in the Middle East,” Brookings Institution, September 17, 2020, www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2020/09/17/pandemic-highlights-the-vulnerability-of-migrant-workers-in-the-middle-east/ and Zahra Babar, “The COVID-19 Pandemic in the GCC: Underlying Vulnerabilities for Migrant Workers,” Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University in Qatar, April 22, 2020, https://cirs.georgetown.edu/news-analysis/COVID-19-pandemic-gcc-underlying-vulnerabilities-migrant-workers.   
  16. Babar, “The COVID-19 Pandemic in the GCC.”
  17. Ibid.
  18. Qatar Government Communications Office, “Labour Reform”; See also ILO and Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs of Qatar, “An introduction to Joint Committees in Qatar,” April 21, 2020, www.ilo.org/beirut/projects/qatar-office/WCMS_742257/lang--en/index.htm.  
  19. ILO, “Qatar’s leading transport company holds first joint committee elections to promote workplace cooperation,” July 15, 2021, https://www.ilo.org/beirut/projects/qatar-office/WCMS_814344/lang--en/index.htm.
  20. ILO, “Social protection for migrant workers: A necessary response to the Covid-10 crisis,” ILO Brief, June 23, 2020, www.social-protection.org/gimi/RessourcePDF.action?id=56783.  
  21. Mustafa Qadri, “The UAE’s Kafala System: Harmless or Human Trafficking?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 7, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/07/uae-s-kafala-system-harmless-or-human-trafficking-pub-82188.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Noha Aboueldahab, “Cultivating the Rule of Law in Qatar,” Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, Middle East Insight No. 151, October 12, 2016, https://mei.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Download_Insight_151_Aboueldahab.pdf.
  24. Diop, “Welfare Index of Migrant Workers in the Gulf.”
  25. Withholding passports of employees is also practiced in other Gulf countries.
  26. Diop, “Welfare Index of Migrant Workers in the Gulf,” 2. Emphasis added.
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