Qatar Vows to End Kafala System
Following years of international campaigning against kafala – a form of indentured labor that in practice has equated to often slave-like treatment of workers – the Qatari government has now gone on record as stating that it will finally be terminated.
International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) general secretary Steve Cotton said: “Qatar has made this pledge to the global union federations and to our colleagues in the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who have led the international effort to remove this system. If that promise is made good then this is a genuinely historic breakthrough.
“For the ITF this means a potential sea change for transport workers, in aviation, in ports and in public transport. We will now work within this agreement to build protection for them as workers, with good, sustainable jobs, recognizing international standards and best practice.”
The ITUC has explained that the Qatari government has committed to steps that include:
• Employment contracts will be lodged with a government authority to prevent contract substitution, ending the practice of workers arriving in the country only to have their contract torn up and replaced with a different job, often on a lower wage.
• Employers will no longer be able to stop their employees from leaving the country.
• A minimum wage will be prescribed as a base rate covering all workers, ending the race-based system of wages.
• Identification papers will be issued directly by the State of Qatar, and workers will no longer rely on their employer to provide their ID card without which workers can be denied medical treatment.
• Workers’ committees will be established in each workplace, with workers electing their own representatives.
• A special disputes resolution committee with a timeframe for dealing with grievances will be a centerpiece for ensuring rapid remedy of complaints.
Earlier this year, the U.K.-based charities Human Rights at Sea and Justice Upheld took up the case of four Indian seafarers unlawfully detained in Kuwait since May 13, 2013. The case was a reflection of the Kafala system under which the Indian seafarers were subjucated, said the charities.
“Kafala” is an Arabic word which means “sponsorship.” Kafala operates in the Gulf States, and it is unique to these Middle Eastern States. The Kafala system allows nationals of the Gulf States to employ non Gulf nationals. The power is entirely in the hands of the employer/sponsor known as the kafeel (sometimes spelt Kafil). The kafeel can be an individual or a company and has the authority and responsibility to issue employment visas and work permits.
The kafeel can dictate the conditions and terms of work, including the accommodation of the work migrant. In fact, the sole bargaining power rests in the hands of the kafeel to control the migrant workers, including legal power to control the work migrants.
It is the duty of the Kafeel to ensure that employment visas, work permits and related legal obligations are updated. However, this is dependent upon and maintained according to the nature of the each individual kafeel. There are many cases where the kafeel has, unbeknownst to the work migrant, failed to renew their work visas and permits which has resulted in the work migrant being forced to work without being paid for months. They are too frightened to leave the kafeel to report the matter to the Police, since the Police will arrest and jail the work migrant for not having valid immigration documents. This often means months and even years of imprisonment.
The migrant worker is prohibited from changing jobs, resigning or leaving the country. If a migrant worker leaves his employment, the kafeel has the unilateral power to cancel the migrant worker’s right to remain in the country (that is cancel the work migrant’s residence which will render the migrant worker an illegal immigrant and most likely will result in their arrest and subsequent deportation.
The kafeel has further been know to use their powerful position under the kafala system to seek revenge against migrant workers where the work relationship has broken down, by making false and malicious accusations to the police against the migrant. This inevitably leads to the arrest and imprisonment.
The subjugation of the Kafala system has resulted in migrant workers referring to kafeel as their “owners.”