Qatar has a fantastic opportunity to lead the way among all the GCC countries to significantly reform the prevailing labour system in the country, especially Kafala, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Researcher for Middle East and North Africa Nicholas McGeehan said yesterday.
In a media briefing, he said “Gulf states could not carry on with their labour systems because it was becoming immensely costly in terms of their reputation”.
McGeehan said the sort of reform that Qatar needed was not just about the construction works related to the 2022 World Cup. He called for a significant reform of the Kafala sponsorship system that prevents a worker from changing his employer in the event of abuse or exploitation.
“We want the effect of the Kafala system to be abolished. We want to get rid of it as it operates now. Can you operate a system of sponsorship that is equitable, fair, which allows workers to change jobs? We think yes, you probably can,” he stressed.
He said the UK and the US, too, had sponsorship-based employment but the way it worked there was different because in the event of an abuse, there were mechanisms and checks and balances that prevented exploitation.
“What we are saying (to Qatar) is, we can work with small steps, but you have to take one. It’s an incremental reform,” he said.
About the exit visa system, he said the government’s response to demands for its abolition was usually to the effect that they would not reform it because all foreigners working in the country who had borrowed money from their banks would leave without paying back.
“But we ask them, how many migrant workers have a bank loan? None, not one. So, what we have is basically the confusion of two separate issues,” he added.
He said if Qatar abolishes these systems, it will get all-round praise from all human rights bodies.
“I think Qatar can do away with the exit visa system tomorrow. The Kafala reform can be done, may be not on the next day, but maybe the day after. (In any case,) No, we can’t say that let’s make the changes after five years. We want this as soon as possible,” he said.
The HRW official was cautious about the recent remarks recently made by members of the European Parliament, who were reportedly told that the Kafala system would be abolished soon.
HRW had spoken with the parliament members before they left for Qatar. “It’s very positive that they were here and they got this message. But there has been a history of promises that haven’t necessarily been delivered,” he said.
McGeehan also revealed that the HRW held a “positive discussion” with DLA Piper, the global law firm engaged by Qatar to do its own independent research on the issues faced by migrant workers.
“They have engaged a highly reputable, massive global law firm. I don’t see any reason why their report won’t be based on excellent research, strong methodology and a grasp of their issues…. I don’t want to second guess what will be on the report, but we hope so it would be acceptable to bodies like the HRW and Amnesty,” he said.
“I can’t divulge the content of what we said in our meetings, but I can say that we had a very positive discussion. We will certainly issue our response to that report once it comes out,” he added.
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