This article was written by Léonie Hamway, Norton Rose Fulbright.
Many countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have a huge population of migrant workers making up a significant proportion of the workforce. For example, in Qatar, 300,000 citizens rely on 1.3 million migrants for their labour needs (Qatar’s migrant worker problem now includes pro soccer players). Worker migration is made possible through the Kafala sponsorship system, whereby a worker has a sponsor who is responsible for his/her visa and legal status.
Sponsorship can be an appealing prospect for a migrant, as in many GCC countries sponsors are legally obliged to cover all initial recruitment costs. In Kuwait, sponsors of domestic workers must also cover the workers’ travel costs and employment agencies are forbidden from accepting any remuneration from domestic workers. There is a similar rule in the UAE.
However, a recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) study has found that many countries with these protections often fail to enforce them, placing any cost burdens of recruitment at the migrant’s feet, sometimes substantially increasing the amount to make a profit (ILO in the Arab States). Sometimes this drives the migrant worker deeper into debt, creating an unhealthy working environment and encourages human-trafficking. Further, the study has found that an employer as sponsor has an inordinate amount of control over the worker, and can often dictate whether a person can enter or leave a country, and where they can work. This control is frequently secured through holding onto the individual’s passport. As a result of these findings, the ILO further criticised the sponsorship system as creating an unequal dynamic between the employer and the employee which leads to human rights abuses.
There is, however, some positive news. As part of the deal in hosting the World Cup, Qatar promised to improve the situation for migrant workers. A recent announcement from the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development has stated that it has signed the Migrant Workers Welfare Charter, designed to improve working and living conditions for migrant workers engaged in the construction sector (Qatar Foundation Implements Welfare Standards to Guarantee Workers’ Rights). This charter outlines criteria including a 48 hour maximum working week and an obligation for employers to pay overtime. All contractors will be obliged to follow a strict set of rules and attend induction training on the new charter. They will also have to submit to regular welfare audits (QF Mandatory Standards). Inevitably, compliance is likely to result in a sizeable administrative burden as well as an increase in costs.
The charter is certainly a step in the right direction, and should encourage other Qatari companies, and possibly even other GCC countries, to follow suit.