Ali Asghar returned to Pakistan from Qatar on September 11 after spending four years in the Gulf state. The 39-year-old, who was part of the 2-million strong foreign workforce in Qatar, told DW he had to work without payment for months.
“I was jobless for two years in Doha and lived with my friends. Moving back to Pakistan was not an option because of my country’s bad economic situation,” Asghar said. “But things were not easy in Qatar also. My employer would not pay his workers for months. We worked at construction sites in abysmal conditions,” added Asghar, who is originally from Pakistan’s Rawalpindi city.
The “kafala” system is believed to be the main reason behind the exploitation of workers in many Arab countries. It requires unskilled migrant workers to have an in-country sponsor, which is usually their employer in the host nation, to deal with their visa and legal status. Human rights organizations have long criticized this system, saying that it leads to workers’ exploitation. There have been several reports that some employers take away the workers’ passports and don’t let them leave work.
In a surprise move, the Qatari government in August scrapped the kafala system. Authorities also ended the requirement for migrant workers to obtain permission from the employer to leave the country.
“We welcome the historic decision to abolish the kafala system for foreign workers in Qatar as it represents a major achievement for the workers’ rights and Qatari society as a whole, which is moving towards a more dynamic and non-discriminatory labor environment in the country,” members of the European Parliament said on September 3.
But Asghar is not too optimistic. He told DW that the exploitation of workers in Qatar is likely to continue in one form or another. Also, the reforms will not come into force anytime soon, he said.
“It runs deep in the system. Vulnerable laborers find themselves helpless before their employers. I think it will take a lot of time to implement these reforms,” Asghar said.
The recent reforms in Qatar come as the country prepares to host the 2022 Football World Cup.
“In my view, these are just token measures to present a better image of the country to the international community before the start of the 2022 Football World Cup,” he added.
The Pakistani worker says that most migrant laborers in Qatar don’t know much about labor reforms.
“A majority of workers from South Asian countries are illiterate. They need more awareness of these laws and their rights. They are still afraid of their ‘kafeels’ (employers),” Asghar said.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Doha to take measures to protect construction workers working in high temperatures, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of workers.
Describing the ordeal that he faced in Qatar, Asghar recounted that migrant workers were forced to work at construction sites even when they are ill. “If a worker chooses not to work on a particular day, his employer threatens to fire him,” he said.
‘A welcome move’ nonetheless
Irrespective of Asghar’s apprehensions, the International Labor Organization (ILO) hailed the abrogation of the kafala system.
“Qatar has embarked on an ambitious labor reform agenda, in line with its National Vision 2030 and international commitments. The reform agenda has addressed many of the underlying factors contributing to workers’ vulnerability to exploitation and forced labor,” Houtan Homayounpour, head of ILO’s Project Office for the State of Qatar, told DW.
International rights groups have been urging Qatari authorities to introduce multiple safeguards to improve the labor conditions, including setting a minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275, €233) and allowances for food and accommodation by employers.
“These reforms are a welcome move. After their implementation, the workers will have the right to change their employer, quit jobs and leave the country,” Hiba Zayadin, a Gulf researcher for HRW, told DW.
“But there are provisions in the law that can be used to exploit laborers. For instance, the employer can file absconding charges against a worker in retaliation for changing or quitting jobs,” she said.
The way forward for Arab countries
Qatar’s employment reforms are a first of its kind in the region. Rights groups believe they will encourage other Gulf countries to follow suit.
“Workers’ exploitation in the Arab world is quite systematic. The worst exploitation exists in Saudi Arabia. Laborers are subjected to torture, confinement, confiscation of passports and physical abuse in several Arab countries,” Zayadin said.
Mustafa Qadri, the head of the Equidem Research labor rights consultancy firm, told DW that exploitation of workers is far from over in many Gulf countries.
“The recent reforms in Qatar are significant. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates (UAE) managed to take such steps, nor have they indicated a willingness to do so anytime soon. But Qatar should not measure its reforms against such a low threshold,” he stressed.
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