(Beirut)—Qatar announced on January 16, 2020 that most migrant workers previously prevented from leaving the country without their employer’s permission, including domestic workers, will no longer need an exit permit, Human Rights Watch said today. While this is an important step forward, the larger kafala (visa sponsorship) system, which facilitates the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, remains intact.
A September 2018 law abolished the exit permit requirement for most migrant workers. But it did not extend to people who are not covered under the labor law, including government employees and workers in the oil and gas sector, at sea and in territorial waters, in agriculture, in private offices, and domestic workers. A new ministerial decision extends the right to leave the country without prior permission to most of those excluded workers, except those in the military. However, employers can apply for exceptions for a few workers, and domestic workers are required to inform employers that they wish to leave at least 72 hours in advance.
“Qatar has taken an important step to eliminate a tool of control that employers sometimes used to exploit workers and keep them entrapped in abusive situations,” said Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “However, the authorities should ensure that no worker should have to get permission from an employer to exercise their right to leave the country.”
Disappointingly, both Law No. 13 of 2018 and the new Ministerial Decision no. 95 of 2019 still maintain exit visa requirements for some employees. Employers can apply to the authorities to designate up to five percent of their foreign national staff to be required to seek prior consent due to the nature of their work. While this designation does not apply to domestic workers, they are the only workers required to give their employers advance notice.
The official Interior Ministry Twitter accounts in English and Arabic stated on January 16 that domestic workers who leave without advance notice may have to forfeit their paid return travel fare and their financial rights, which could mean a claim to any unpaid wages. They could also face a four-year ban on re-entering Qatar.
The Peninsula, a Qatari online newspaper, cited a senior ministry official saying the same thing. However, in response to inquiries by Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations, The Peninsula removed the quote and the official ministry Twitter account removed the tweets later that day.
A government spokesperson told Human Rights Watch by email on January 16 that:
With immediate effect, the measures announced today remove exit permits for all expatriates who are not currently subject to Qatar’s Labor Law—including domestic workers.
In order to protect the rights of both employers and domestic workers, domestic workers must notify employers at least 72 hours prior to their departure in order to protect their rights and ensure that they receive their financial benefits. However, any reports suggesting financial penalties for workers failing to notify their employer are patently false and misinformed.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that requiring domestic workers by law to inform their employer in advance that they plan to leave could lead domestic workers to believe they do in fact require their employer’s permission. This is especially problematic for domestic workers who are in abusive or exploitative situations, or who fear retaliation. It also could create further abuses in which employers could confine domestic workers to the house after receiving notice of their intent to leave or file trumped-up criminal charges against them to prevent their departure.
“Qatari authorities should make sure it is crystal clear that domestic workers will be able leave the country even if they have not informed their employer,” Begum said. “The government should remove this legal requirement altogether because it could create confusion for both employers and domestic workers and leave domestic workers exposed to abuse.”
Lifting the exit permit requirement addresses one key element of the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers, and has enabled abuse and exploitation of workers. Other elements remain, however, including requiring workers to obtain employer permission to leave or change a job. Those who leave before the end of a contract without permission can also be charged with “absconding” and are at risk of arrest and deportation. Other reforms to the kafala system are expected to be rolled out later in January.
Qatar, which is employing thousands of migrant workers to build infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has come under increased scrutiny for its treatment of foreign workers since winning the bid to host the tournament. In November, Qatar entered the third and last year of its technical cooperation program with the International Labour Organization (ILO), aimed at extensively reforming migrant workers’ conditions.
However, the reforms introduced over the past three years, while positive, have not gone far enough, and implementation has been uneven, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch continues to document abuse and exploitation of migrant workers facilitated by the kafala system.
The kafala system exists across the Middle East region in various forms. Following Qatar’s announcement, Saudi Arabia remains the only country to require exit permits for all its migrant workers. In other Middle Eastern countries, however, a migrant worker can still be blocked from leaving the country if a sponsor files a complaint with immigration authorities or if the employer has not cancelled the employee’s residency visa.
International human rights law provides that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Any restrictions can only be individual, for a legitimate reason, and proportionate—as, for instance, during a criminal investigation.
“With Qatar‘s exit-permit system almost at an end, Saudi Arabia will become the only state in the region to still impose this abusive requirement on its migrant workers,” Begum said. “Qatar, Saudi Arabia and all other Gulf countries should abolish the kafala system and ensure that migrant workers’ visas are not tied to their employers.”