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A UN agency has granted Qatar even more time to address allegations of “forced labor” before deciding whether the country should be sanctioned.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) decided yesterday to continue monitoring Qatar for human rights violations until November of this year.

When it convenes in eight months time, it will revisit whether to open a Commission of Inquiry, its highest investigative mechanism.

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According to those who attended this week’s meeting, about 18 governments weighed in on the decision.

Some of them, including the UAE and Sudan, two Qatar allies, urged the complaint to be dropped altogether, but were unsuccessful.

Pressure is on

The ILO has been investigating allegations by unions against Qatar since last year, and visited the nation to inspect working conditions for expats.

Last March, the UN agency decided to give Qatar a year to work on the issues at hand, as the country was in the middle of changing its laws.

Shabina S. Khatri / Doha News

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Authorities did implement some labor reforms in December. But they did not completely do away with the exit permit system or no objection certificate requirement to change jobs.

This has drawn the ire of many rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Speaking to Doha News yesterday, James Lynch, deputy director of Amnesty’s Global Issues Program, hailed the ILO’s decision. He said it would keep the pressure on Qatar, as “half-hearted reforms” are not enough.

He continued:

“Since the complaint was first brought in 2014, the government has done little to change the power imbalance between employers and migrant workers.

Between now and November, Qatar needs to tackle the fundamentals. It should start by genuinely abolishing the exit permit system so that employers have no right to interfere in a migrant worker’s ability to leave the country.”

Strides made

For its part, Qatar has not publicly commented on the ILO proceedings.

However, in a document it sent to the UN agency last month, officials outlined various pieces of legislation aimed at safeguarding workers.

Peter Kovessy / Doha News

Residents line up at a bank to open accounts ahead of the start of WPS in 2015.

This includes the new labor reforms, the Wage Protection System (WPS) and a draft law protecting house help.

It also pledged to increase the number of inspectors on construction sites, establish a complaint hotline for abused expats and conduct a study to gain insight into the conditions and sentiments of blue-collar workers in Qatar.

Thoughts?

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Qatar will face the International Labor Organization (ILO) tomorrow to defend itself against allegations of “forced labor.”

The ILO voted to investigate complaints filed by unions last year, and even visited Qatar to inspect working conditions for expats.

The complaint asserted that Qatar “fails to maintain a legal framework sufficient to protect the rights of migrant workers consistent with international law and to enforce the legal protections that currently do exist.”

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It also lambasted Qatar’s former kafala sponsorship law, calling it “among the most restrictive in the Gulf region” because it makes it hard to leave an abusive employer.

The ILO had the option to recommend the establishment of a commission of inquiry, its highest investigative mechanism, to take a closer look at the complaints.

But last March, it decided to give Qatar a year to work on the issues, as the country was in the middle of changing its laws.

Kafala changes

Qatar officials submitted a document to the ILO last month, outlining its labor rights progress in recent years.

It highlighted several legislative changes, including Law No. 21 of 2015, which took effect in December.

Qatar called the legislation a “repeal of kafala.”

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The new sponsorship law does indeed make it easier for expats to leave the country and change jobs.

But foreigners are still required to obtain exit permits from their employers.

And while it is now easier for some people to switch jobs, the no objection certificate requirement has not been abolished.

Instead, only workers on fixed-term contracts can now change jobs after their contract is completed without an NOC.

Those on open-ended contracts must work for five years before being able to do so. And all foreigners would need labor ministry approval before taking up new employment.

Domestic worker rights

The progress report also included information about a draft law on domestic workers, which Qatar’s Cabinet approved last month.

This legislation would provide legal protection to Qatar’s nannies, drivers and cooks by creating a common contract for them.

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Currently, these workers are not required to sign contracts with their employers and cannot file complaints against them with the Ministry of Labor.

According to the document submitted to the ILO, the law would establish a 10-hour workday with periods for rest and food.

It would also mandate one day off a week. However, it is unclear how the law would be enforced, as inspectors are not usually sent to people’s homes to look for labor violations.

What’s next

Rights groups are closely watching this week’s session, and have urged the ILO not to close the complaint against Qatar.

Last week, Amnesty International urged that the process continues. James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty’s Global Issues Program, said in a statement:

“This is a critical juncture for migrant workers in Qatar. The government has made some public commitments in response to ILO pressure, but its claims that it has abolished the sponsorship system simply do not add up.

If the ILO governing body endorses Qatar’s inadequate reforms by dropping this complaint, this could have damaging consequences for migrant rights in Qatar and across the region.”

Thoughts?

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All residents of Qatar are considered equal according to the country’s constitution, a government minister has said in defense of the nation’s labor policies, according to QNA.

Speaking to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) governing body this week, Issa bin Saad Al-Jafali Al-Nuaimi – Qatar’s new minister of administrative development, labor and social affairs – said foreign workers are an important part of the fabric of Qatari society.

Al-Nuaimi’s speech comes amid an ILO investigation into complaints that the country’s sponsorship system facilitates “forced labor” by making it difficult for expats to leave abusive employers.

If the UN agency found there was merit to those accusations, it could have subjected Qatar to a commission of inquiry, the ILO’s highest investigative mechanism.

جنيف في 23 مارس /قنا/ أكد سعادة الدكتور عيسى بن سعد الجفالي النعيمي وزير التنمية الإدارية والعمل والشؤون الاجتماعية، أن دولة قطر تحت قيادة حضرة صاحب السم�� الشيخ تميم بن حمد آل ثاني أمير البلاد المفدى (حفظه الله)، تحرص على تطوير تشريعاتها الوطنية وأنظمتها وبرامجها المعمول بها في مجال حماية العمالة الوافدة باعتبارها جزء من النسيج الاجتماعي في المجتمع القطري لها حقوق وعليها واجبات شأنها في ذلك شأن جميع المقيمين على أرض الدولة.

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An ILO delegation visited Qatar earlier this month and left with mixed impressions about the living and working conditions of low-income expats in the country, as well as the impact of government efforts to address problems, according to an ILO report.

In a meeting earlier this week, the ILO’s governing body adopted the delegation’s recommendation to wait a year to decide on whether to sanction Qatar.

This would be to assess the impact of new changes to the kafala sponsorship system that take effect in December, which would theoretically make it easier for expats to leave the country and change jobs.

Equal rights?

Speaking at the same session, Al-Nuaimi said all residents of Qatar are equal under the law and that expats are protected against discrimination under the country’s constitution and legislation.

However, expats and Qataris are subject to different rules in some areas of the law.

For example, unlike most nationals, expats living in Qatar require permission to leave the country and change jobs. They also require their sponsor’s permission to open a bank account, take out a loan and obtain a driver’s license.

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Penny Yi Wang / Flickr

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While Qatar’s legal system often rules in favor of expats who’ve filed labor complaints, the issues can take months to resolve, discouraging some low-income workers from pursuing their case, an American researcher wrote in a December 2014 report.

If an expat’s dispute is with their employer, a lawsuit or criminal complaint often means a sponsor will stop paying the complainant, kick them out of company-provided accommodations and fail to renew their residence permit.

Additionally, most blue-collar workers typically live outside central Doha and lack access to private transportation, making it difficult to attend some hearings.

Progress made

The ILO delegation heard from the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs that the government has taken steps to make the justice system more accessible.

These include setting up a multilingual office within the courts to help expats with their cases.

Complaint kiosk.

ADLSA

Complaint kiosk.

Additionally, the ministry pointed to the service centers and electronic kiosks located outside central Doha that now accept grievances in 11 languages.

However, the ILO delegation said it spoke to several workers during their visit to Qatar who said they were not aware of the electronic kiosks. Meanwhile, those who had heard of the equipment said they lacked the resources to travel to them to file a complaint.

The ILO said it also met expats who faced retaliation after reporting issues, including one woman who was sent to the deportation center after her employer filed a criminal complaint against her.

Others said their court hearings were continuously delayed because their employer refused to attend the proceedings:

“These workers are awaiting for a decision for several months for their salaries to be paid to them and for their passports to be returned so that they could return home, relying on their community solidarity as they are left with no income. The fact that some workers had no ID cards also meant that they had no access to free health care,” the report said.

The ILO delegation said it was told that 8,379 complaints landed in labor courts last year, up from 6,878 in 2014. Of those, 3,778 were withdrawn following mediation in 2015, an increase from the 2,595 the previous year.

However, the number of judgments issued by the labor court decreased from 2,116 in 2014 to 2,012 last year. The ILO report did not say how those cases were resolved.

Thoughts?