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Qatar moves to abolish kafala labour system ahead of 2022 Fifa World Cup

The International Labour Organisation, a UN-affiliated employment rights agency, has announced that Qatar is planning to abolish the controversial kafala migrant workers law and introduce minimum wage reforms ahead of the country’s hosting of the Fifa World Cup in 2022.

Kafala is a sponsorship system which prevents migrant workers from moving jobs or leaving the country without the express permission of their employers. It has applied to the thousands of migrant workers, largely drawn from the Indian subcontinent, who have been working on the construction of new stadiums in Qatar ahead of the World Cup.

The system is now set to be revoked in early 2020 after the country’s governing council of ministers unanimously agreed to the reforms, which will next pass through the advisory council before final approval by the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The ILO reports that this is expected to happen in January. 

Human rights charity Amnesty International, a longstanding critic of the kafala, has said that it will be “closely scrutinising the details of this announcement and pushing for any positive measures to be quickly and fully implemented”.

Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty’s deputy director of global issues, added: “Far too often workers have continued to face exploitation and abuse despite reforms intended to protect them. We hope this time will be different, and that Qatar can truly transform its labour laws to fully respect the rights of its migrant workers.”

Qatar was reported to be planning to abolish the kafala as far back as 2014, and in 2016 made changes to the system which were criticised by Amnesty, who argued that the reforms would not have a significant impact on workers on the ground and noted that the new measures allowed employers to withhold workers’ passports – something that had not been allowed under the previous laws. 

Fifa itself has long been criticised for not insisting on the abolition of the kafala law when it awarded its flagship tournament to the Gulf state. In 2017, a legal claim was lodged against Fifa for failing to ensure the fair treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, though this was rejected by the Commercial Court of Zurich.

Additionally, Qatar has announced the introduction of a “non-discriminatory” minimum wage, which will apply to all nationalities across all sectors. Presently, migrant workers are not entitled to a minimum wage, and a report by the Guardian last year found that men working on the World Cup stadiums were being paid £40 per week while living in “labour camps” and working though extreme temperatures and humidity.