Call to abolish sponsor system for migrants

Following an eight-day fact-finding visit to Qatar a UN investigator has called for an end to the restrictive sponsorship system for employing expatriate workers.

François Crépeau, the UN’s special rapporteur on migrants’ rights, said Qatar should make it easier for migrants to change employers without the consent of their existing sponsor/employer and should also abolish the exit visa requirement “which leads to a large number of migrants being stranded in Qatar for no apparent reason”. 

Ultimately, he said, Qatar should abolish the kafala (sponsorship) system and replace it by “a regulated open labour market, where the work permit allows the worker to change employer”.

Qatar has the highest proportion of migrant workers in the world. About 88% of the country’s population are foreigners – mostly employed in construction, service industries and domestic work.

Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers has come under increased scrutiny – and criticism – recently because of construction work ahead of the 2022 World Cup. In September, an investigation by the Guardian found that Nepalese workers, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, “face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery”.

Crépeau, a Canadian, will formally report to the UN Human Rights Council next year but before leaving Qatar he presented a long list of “preliminary” recommendations (published here by al-Jazeera).

The fact the al-Jazeera has reported Crépeau’s criticisms in detail (while also highlighting his more favourable comments) suggests the Qatari authorities are willing to consider his recommendations and perhaps go some way towards meeting them.

Last week al-Jazeera also aired a programme discussing whether Saudi Arabia should end its kafala sponsorship system. The answer, judging by the comments from participants, appeared to be “yes”. One of them, Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette, said: “The kafala system is responsible for a lot of ills ... and is going to be on its way out ... there are people in our society who have misused the kafala system.”

Although Crépeau’s investigation was confined to Qatar many of his recommendations could be applied to other Gulf states too – including the thorny question of exit permits. These are intended to prevent expatriate workers from leaving the country with unpaid debts but they can also lead to people becoming trapped there with no means of support.

Business interests in Qatar have been resisting a change in the rules, claiming they could suffer financially. Crépeau suggests scrapping the permits but allowing creditors to apply to the courts for a travel ban on individuals who owe them money.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 11 November 2013