Gulf States Undertake Labor-law Reforms
Laundry dries in May at a housing complex for foreign workers in Dubai's Qusais neighborhood. (Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)

Gulf States Undertake Labor-law Reforms

Qatar ends need for employer consent to change jobs, UAE adds paternity leave

As part of diversification efforts, several member-states in the Gulf Cooperation Council have begun to introduce dramatic labor reforms.

Earlier this week, Qatar raised the national minimum wage and dealt the biggest blow yet to its work-sponsorship system, kefala, by ending the requirement for migrant laborers to obtain permission to change jobs.

“This is probably the most significant kefala reform we’ve seen to date,” Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line, referring to a practice that is common in the Arab world.

This is probably the most significant kefala reform we’ve seen to date

“[Not only] have they completely eliminated the No-Objection-Certificate, the way they’ve abolished it allows the worker simply to notify the Ministry of Labor of the job transfer,” she stated.

Despite the changes, there are still many limitations. For example, employees remain beholden to employers to work in the country legally, and if they wish to change jobs, they must seek new employment before quitting, unlike in the United Arab Emirates, which allows workers a month off for a job search.

The changes also do not address pay discrepancies based on country of origin.

“While Qatar says it has a non-discriminatory minimum wage, there is discrimination in practice,” Begum said. “For example, domestic workers tend to be recruited by agencies that advertise these jobs with different salaries based [on being local], and not so much on their experience.”

Salaries also differ based on an employee’s origins. Filipinos tend to make the most, at around $400 a month, while Bangladeshis and Kenyans are on the lower end, earning $200 monthly, Begum notes. These rates are negotiated by the respective embassy in the absence of minimum-wage laws in much of the Gulf.

The increase in Qatar’s minimum monthly wage to 1,000 riyals, approximately $275, brings it in line with that of Kuwait, the only other Gulf country to have a minimum wage law that includes migrants. Begum notes that the minimum wage in Qatar is actually higher because the reform also stipulates sums that employers must invest toward worker accommodations and food.

The wage hike, however, does not address the largest problem that migrants face: wage abuse.

“Nationals make triple the minimum wage of migrants. [The] minimum wage is aimed at migrant workers, even temporary ones,” Hiba Zayadin, HRW’s Gulf researcher, told The Media Line.

According to statistics collected between January 2016 and August 2020 by the London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), there were 194 publicly reported cases of labor abuse in the Gulf, affecting 61,000 migrant workers.

Approximately three quarters of the cases involved workers from Asia, most of Indian origin. The most frequent cause of complaint was “wage theft.”

Employees often do not recover lost wages if they are not paid, and original contracts are sometimes changed without their consent once they are in the country. Pay can then be lowered, often without a worker’s knowledge.

“There simply isn’t access to justice that workers should have,” Isobel Archer, a Gulf project officer at the BHRRC, told The Media Line.

There simply isn’t access to justice that workers should have

Many workers are simply unaware of their rights, which is why Archer says companies should be mandated to inform their employees.

“We would like to have awareness-raising programs implemented in company training, which employers have been very keen to tell us they are implementing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

Prior to Qatar’s reform, Bahrain had the Gulf’s most progressive system, according to Begum. Manama allows legal foreign workers to pay a fee to obtain a new visa that is not dependent on their employer.

“This is very different from what Qatar has done,” Begum said, calling it “one of the most promising potential solutions to the way in which a visa system could exist for a migrant worker.”

The cost to join, however, has stifled participation.

“If Bahrain changes those conditions in a way that all migrant workers are shifted to a system where they are not tied to their employer, that would be a radical [transformation],” Begum adds.

Even though Qatar’s kefala reform is the most drastic in the Middle East, Zayadin, HRW’s Gulf researcher, says that like reforms in other Gulf countries, it falls short.

“A lot of the countries, in varying degrees, embarked on certain reforms. But what we found is that unless the kefala system is abolished in its entirety, there will remain remnants of control that [lead to mistreatment] of migrant workers,” she said.

A lot of the countries, in varying degrees, embarked on certain reforms. But what we found is that unless the kefala system is abolished in its entirety, there will remain remnants of control that [lead to mistreatment] of migrant workers

This is made worse, she adds, by the inability of migrant workers to band together to negotiate better conditions.

“Migrant workers can’t join trade unions…. That is one big part… that no country has been willing to change,” she said. “The workers still face abuse; they are unable to speak up; they still fear retaliation.”

In another dramatic reform, the UAE became what is believed to be the first country in the GCC to introduce paternity leave in the private sector. (Saudi Arabia offers men three days off within a short amount of time after their children are born, but the law in the kingdom is murky about whether it applies only to the public sector or not.)

While the change in the Emirates is important, HRW’s Begum argues that there are significant issues regarding women, particularly in the workplace, that are not being addressed.

While the change in the Emirates is important, HRW’s Begum argues that there are significant issues regarding women, particularly in the workplace, that are not being addressed.

The reform changed the “duty of obedience” regulation to the more gender-neutral “spousal obligation.” While the new language permits women to take husbands to court, Begum says that in practice, the law still unfairly targets women as it allows a judge to decide what is best for the family.

“It is rare for a woman to be able to complain that her husband has left the house when he is obligated to stay at home, because it is customary for a man to work…” she explained. “If a mother wants to work, the judge would be looking to see whether or not the woman can balance her maternal duty with her wish to work.

Begum believes that the UAE has failed to get to the “crux” of the issue.

“By tinkering [with the regulation] so that discrimination is not allowed under law [although it] exists in practice, the UAE shows that it still prioritizes [female] obedience and male guardianship,” she said.

While these efforts make way for drastic reforms, success will depend on enforcement.

“It remains to be seen how effectively this reform will be implemented,” Danielle McMullan, senior labor researcher at the BHRRC, told The Media Line.

It remains to be seen how effectively this reform will be implemented

Based on prior performance, she says, it is not very promising.

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