When Qatar announced last October its intention to put an end to the controversial kafala system, which affects 23 million migrant workers across the Arab world, the pledge was met with some scepticism. However Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said recently that she is confident the government will honour their word.

During talks with Mrs Burrow in January, the prime minister of Qatar, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, gave assurances that the country will stick to the timetable they have set out for reform.

“I am confident the kafala system is on its way out in Qatar,” she told The Independent, “and that will free two million migrant workers. By the end of March we will have seen the worst of kafala off the agenda and the beginnings of a mature industrial relations structure.”

Qatar has primarily relied on migrant labour to construct the stadiums and infrastructure required for hosting the 2022 World Cup, with country’s employment record coming under scrutiny after it was announced they would host the international event.

Use of the Kafala system is widespread in the Arab states, requiring all unskilled labourers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.

Aspects of the system have come under criticism from observers, including the fact that employee contracts can be torn up and rewritten by companies once the worker has arrived in the country. Migrant workers may also be unable to leave their country of work even if their pay has been stopped, as employers can withhold their passports in their capacity as a sponsor.

Mrs Burrow told the online newspaper that by the end of March or beginning of April the government had agreed to deliver:

  • An ILO office in Doha to oversee reform
  • A labour tribunal to resolve disputes within three weeks
  • All contracts lodged with the government to prevent substitution
  • Residency permits and elimination of exit visas
  • Workers free to leave country either for home leave or at end of their contract
  • Support fund from the government to pay for employee’s journey home, after which authorities would have to sue employers to get money back

Beyond that March/April deadline, further reforms on the timetable include joint workplace committees, with worker representation, and the establishment of a minimum wage “based on evidence of what it takes for people to live with dignity”.

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