Expats in Qatar have welcomed government plans to scrap the country’s controversial “sponsorship” system for overseas workers.
The system, which is widespread throughout the Gulf, requires all foreigners to be sponsored by a local employer in order to work and reside in the country.
Because sponsored expatriates can find it extremely hard to change jobs, leave the country or even rent a home without the permission of their sponsors, the arrangement has long been criticised by human rights groups as a tool for exploitation and abuse.
So far only one country in the Gulf Co-operation Council, Bahrain, has scrapped the system, known as kafala, but reports last week suggested that Qatar might soon follow.
“The sponsorship system will be replaced with a contract signed by the two parties [workers and employers],” said Hussain al-Mulla, the labour ministry undersecretary, according to Gulf News. “The contract will stipulate the rights and duties of each party and will impose specific matters that the foreigner has to respect."
There were also plans, he said, to set up a labour union to protect the rights of both Qatari and foreign workers.
Qatar has come under heavy pressure in recent months from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which is insisting that the country ensures labour conditions meet international standards by the time it hosts the World Cup in 2022.
Many expats said that reform was necessary to prevent vulnerable foreign workers, but also pointed out that it could benefit Qatar's growing economy.
Melanie Robson, a Qatar-based health care architect, said that many companies currently refused point-blank to let their workers change jobs, creating “lethargy, frustration and demoralisation, which does not create or enhance innovative or fast-thinking environments. The current sponsorship arrangement seems at odds with Qatar’s forward-thinking approach in so many other areas.“
Expat Christina Zina, founder and leader of the Qatar Professional Women's Network (QPWN), added that abolishing kafala would offer “greater flexibility to both employers and employers, as well as open up new opportunities for expatriate employees looking to work in Qatar".
Some parties complained, however, that the proposed changes would in reality have little effect on the foreigner/employer power balance. “[It is] just the replacement of the word sponsorship to contract,” complained one expat on the Qatar Living forum.
The ITUC said that information provided so far on the contract-based system was "insufficient to assess whether migrant workers will be adequately protected from potential exploitation from their employers".
According to Human Rights Watch, Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world, with just 225,000 citizens in a population of 1.7 million.
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