|Map of the territory and area covered by present-day Saudi Arabia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The kafala system (sponsorship system) is a system used to monitor the construction and domestic migrant laborers in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the small Arab States of the Persian Gulf.[The system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. This practice has been criticised by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions.
About 1.2 million foreign workers in Qatar, mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines, make up 94 percent of the labor force. There are nearly five foreign workers for each Qatari citizen, mostly housemaids and low-skilled workers.
In the latest prominent example of why the sponsorship system in Qatar is very very bad, an Arab American businessman has gone public with his tale as an “economic hostage” here.
Nasser Beydoun, a 46-year-old executive, husband and father, launched a website Friday to raise attention about his situation. Beydoun served as CEO of the Wataniya Restaurants group from 2007 until the end of 2009, resigning after the global downturn caused business to sour.
Beydoun has been trying to leave Qatar ever since, but Wataniya refuses to grant him an exit permit. The company’s Qatari owners are suing Beydoun for $13 million, accusing him of mismanagement and overpaying himself.
“I just want to get out of here,” Beydoun told the Detroit Free Press in a phone interview this week.
But unless somebody throws wasta his way, Beydoun will remain in Qatar until at least December, when he’s scheduled to appear in court.
The newspaper said Wataniya did not respond to requests for comment.
The Dearborn, Mich. resident isn’t the only victim of Qatar’s sponsorship system, which the prime minister himself has criticized as a form of modern-day slavery - and that was way back in 2007.
Since then, Bahrain has abolished its kafala system so that expats can enter and leave the country on their own free will. And this year, Kuwait has modified its process to expand workers’ rights.
Sadly, Qatar has backpedaled on promises to change its system, announcing this week that it is shelving all plans pending the outcome of Bahrain and Kuwait’s experiments.
So for now, expats should look to Beydoun as a cautionary tale about the power their sponsors hold over them.
In his words:
"You cannot leave without your sponsor’s OK. You can’t rent a house. You can’t open a checking account. You can’t get a driver’s license. … And if you get into a legal issue with them, they have the home field advantage."
In 2010 Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Gulf countries to “replace the Kafala system with updated labour laws that can better balance rights and duties”. The International Labour Organisation has also called for ‘major reform’ of the sponsorship system.
A comparative study below examines the key points of the sponsorship system in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Though all countries maintain some form of sponsorship, only Qatar and Saudi still have the exit permit system.
|Country||Sponsorship Law||Exit Permit|
|Bahrain||In 2009, Bahrain adopted the strongest sponsorship reforms in the region by permitting migrant workers to change employment without their employers’ consent and in the absence of allegations of nonpayment of wages or abuse. 2009′s legal reforms allowed migrant workers to change employment after meeting certain notice requirements and provided a 30-day grace period to remain legally in the country while they seek new employment. However, these positive changes do not apply to domestic workers.||Not Required|
|Qatar||Expatriates are allowed to work only under sponsorship. Once sponsored, the employee can not work for another employer unless a special permission has been granted.|
Sponsorship can be transferred to another employer only after agreement from the existing and new employers. The right to change sponsors is not mandated by law and is left to the discretion of sponsors.
If the employee has not been granted a release letter or No Objection Certificate (NOC), he would be required to leave the country for a minimum of two years before returning to work for another employer.
|UAE||UAE Laws require foreign nationals to be primarily sponsored by a UAE national (citizen), except in the case of domestic workers, where foreign nationals can be sponsors too. Businesses are able to sponsor their employees mainly because a UAE national is a partner, owner or a majority shareholder of the business-sponsor (this might differ in the free zones).|
As a general rule, a labour ban is still imposed on all expatriate employees in the UAE who are working in the private sector when they want to change from one employer to another if they left the current employer without having completed a minimum of two years service. The ban could be for six months or a year.
But the ban can be lifted if the new employer offers the candidate a higher position and a salary equal or above the salary set by the ministry against his or her qualifications.
|Saudi Arabia||Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, requires all migrant workers to have a Saudi citizen as their sponsor who is usually the employer. The sponsor is responsible for their visa and legal status.|
In April 2012, Labour Ministry had proposed abolishing the kafala system by transferring immigration sponsorship to newly created recruitment and placement agencies, but later retracted its decision.
|Kuwait||Under Article 3 of Kuwait’s Private Sector Labour Law, an expatriate worker must obtain a work permit issued by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, under the sponsorship of a Kuwaiti entity. The law also states that a release is required from the sponsor for the work permit of an employee to be transferred to the sponsorship of another Kuwaiti entity.|
According to recent reports, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has established the Public Authority for Labour Affairs in a bid to abolish the sponsorship system for private sector labour force. The authority would be directly responsible for all matters concerning private sector employees, including recruitment of expatriate labour forces and managing employer-employee relationship.
|Oman||Under the Kafala system, migrant workers are not allowed to change employers without their sponsors’ consent. Otherwise the worker is considered as an illegal resident in the country according to a law issued in 2003.|
If the worker’s service period was less than two years in Oman, there must be a release letter from the former sponsor indicating that he (the sponsor) has no objection to the employment of that worker by any other employer without being subject to the two-year restriction.
For a migrant worker to change his sponsorship to a new sponsor (employer) while still inside the country, there must be a release letter from the former sponsor and approved by the Directorate General of Labour.
The government announced proposed changes to the labor law in May of this year. The legislation is supposed to make it easier for expats to switch jobs and leave the country.
As part of the reforms, companies will also be required to pay their employees through direct bank transfers, making it easier for expats and the government to scrutinize and document any late or non-existing payments.
However, many residents and international organizations criticized the fact that changes would fail to eliminate the exit visa system, and preserve no-objection certificate requirements for expats to change employers.
Despite pledges made before Eid Al Fitr by Labor Minister Dr. Abdullah Saleh Al Khulaifi that the changes would be brought in “as quickly as possible,” there has been concern that the consultation process was moving slowly.
In August, the Ministry of Interior’s director of research and follow-up, Brig. Nasser Mohammed al Sayed, warned that the reforms may not be finalized until next year.
Winning over the business community has been crucial to getting the reforms passed and the latest announcement seems to signal that discussions with the chamber moved more quickly than had been expected.
Under the new rules, a Qatari employer would have to show "compelling" proof of any objection to a worker leaving the country. Disputes would be resolved within three days. Other possible changes include mandatory employee welfare contracts, sanctions against employers who fail to meet their obligations, and closer bilateral regulatory links with the workers' countries of origin. Experts say tighter implementation across the board will be the key.
The reforms are based on recommendations by the London law firm DLA Piper, which was commissioned to review the legislative and enforcement framework of Qatari labour laws after the Guardian's investigative reports last autumn. The firm has had a 10-strong team working on the 140-page report for six months.
The current exit permit system largely requires foreign workers to get their employer’s consent to leave the country. Officials today proposed shifting this process to an automated system run by the Ministry of Interior.
Expats would apply for a permit at least 72 hours prior to departure. It would then be up to their employer to argue why the individual should not be allowed to leave the country, such as criminal or financial wrongdoing. Any objections would then be reviewed by a special committee.
Travel applications for emergencies would be flagged and dealt with separately, an official told Doha News.
Some employers in Qatar have previously argued that the exit permit system is needed to prevent foreign workers from fleeing the country after taking out loans that the sponsor is liable to cover.
The government appears to have undermined that argument by proposing that employers no longer be financially responsible for their employees. Instead, financial obligations incurred by foreign workers will be governed by the country’s civil and commercial laws.
Currently, expats require a no-objection certificate from their employers before they can change sponsors and take up a new job in Qatar. Alternatively, they can leave the country for two years before taking up a new position.
Under the government’s new proposals, employees who sign a fixed-term contract would be free to transfer to a new employer at the end of their contract.
However, those who sign an indefinite contract would have to work for their employer for five years before being allowed to change positions.
If foreign workers want to change jobs earlier, they would still need the permission of their employer.
Other key points of the reform package include:
- Increasing the penalty for confiscating a worker’s travel documents from a maximum of QR10,000 to up to QR50,000 per passport;
- Distributing a “model contract” that employers must follow in principle when drafting employment agreements;
- Requiring wages to be paid electronically to ensure wages are deposited into a worker’s bank account on time;
- Enforcing a new accommodation standard for workers’ housing. No details of those standards were provided; and
- Formulating harsher penalties for labor law violations, such as late payment of wages and violations of the new accommodations standards.
Officials said the changes would cover all foreign employees in Qatar when asked if the proposals included domestic workers, who are not currently covered by the country’s labor laws.