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Making sense of law reforms in Qatar for Nepali migrant workers

The new laws seem to be progressive, but implementation is key. Nepal can help by adding pressure. 

Jeevan Baniya
The Kathmandu Post
25 October 2019

The hosting of mega sporting events like the Olympics, World Cups and regional games such as South Asian Games have always been an attempt by countries to pursue and promote sports diplomacy and soft power. Countries like North and South Korea have even tried to tap it as a means to improve relations. At the same time, such sporting events have also been criticised, mostly for violating the human rights of the workers. There have been similar developments in the pretext of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Various agencies have been expressing their concerns over the abuses and violations of international laws. There have also been accusations of forced labour and the lack of access to justice.

Qatar has introduced some concrete reforms in laws and policies ahead of the World Cup to address the criticisms and to protect worker’s rights. The international community and human rights organisations have welcomed this, recognising it as ‘landmark reforms’. The community also sees this as the country’s commitment to protect and advance the rights of migrant workers along with ensuring decent work and, eventually, social justice. These reforms are also expected to transform the labour market and labour relations in Qatar, thereby positively contributing to the productive economic development of the Arab country.

According to the legislation endorsed this month, migrant workers are free to switch their employers and can exit the country without requiring a no-objection certificate (NOC) from their employer. What’s more, the state has also announced through a ministerial decree by the Qatari minister of the interior that it will implement a non-discriminatory minimum wage for all nationals and in all sectors, effective by January 2020. It will be the first wage law of its kind in the Middle East. These reforms will also end the kafala system in Qatar.

The reforms can certainly work in favour of Nepali migrant workers, especially domestic workers and casual workers in Qatar, where Nepal has sent more than 1.3 million workers as of 2017-18. Nepalis have massively contributed to the construction of the stadiums and other infrastructure. Migrants from this Himalayan country make up the second-largest migrant population in Qatar, and a total of 1,323 Nepali workers have lost their lives in the country between 2008-09 and 2017-18, with many more getting injured and suffering from health problems.

Of course, Nepal has benefitted too, as billions of rupees enter the country in the form of remittance (in cash and kind). Nepali workers sent home $2 billion in 2017 alone. But these workers, who often toil in extreme temperatures and are compelled to work in unsafe and even forced labour conditions, could benefit more through these reforms.

The reforms look favourable. However, under what terms and conditions will the workers sign a new contract if one switches the employer and how the recruitment cost is born will have to be closely assessed and monitored in order to realise the actual benefits. Likewise, technical issues such as cross-verification of the new employer’s history, the standard of the new contract and updating the records of the same in the Department of Foreign Employment are unclear. Further, how the Embassy of Nepal in Qatar and relevant agencies back home, namely the Department of Employment and Foreign Employment Board, prepare themselves to deal with and adapt to these new changes is incomprehensive.

It also entails how pertinent problems like the issuance of labour permits, their renewal, and duration will be addressed. If workers need to return to Nepal to fulfil requirements every time they switch jobs, it will be a huge burden on workers. Further, how access to justice and compensation from the previous employers, if applicable, is ensured is also tricky and requires further clarification. Operational realities are often very different. Hence, how effectively and honestly these reforms, as well as working conditions, are inspected and assessed is also equally important in order to realise fundamental principles and rights at work.

Government agencies from migrant-sending countries need to be more vigilant and proactive to mitigate the abuse and exploitation of workers. Moreover, employers need to be made accountable to protect and uphold the rights of migrant workers as mentioned in the recent Global Compact for Migration (GCM). There is a long way to go in terms of effectively governing unfair and unethical recruitment practices in Nepal. Whether and how Nepal and Nepali migrant workers will benefit from the reforms in Qatar will highly depend on serious enforcement of the laws. Nepal on its parts needs to ensure that bilateral labour agreements are respected by the employing nation—Qatar, in this case.

Nepal needs to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals’ migration-related targets. Further, it needs a national roadmap to implement the Global Compact for Migration. To achieve these in addition to pursuing to promote fair and ethical recruitment initiatives, the government could include in its plans and strategies a regular review and monitoring mechanism. It can also ask for commitments by the employers and the government of Qatar. For this, it can consider partnering strategically with various stakeholders as highlighted in the Global Compact for Migration.

It will also be crucial to jointly work with other migrant-sending countries to pressure the government of Qatar, through the use of regional platforms such as the Abu Dhabi Dialogue and Colombo Process (the latter of which Nepal currently chairs). The Nepal government could also leverage to put pressure on the government of other Gulf Cooperation Countries to introduce similar pro-worker measures.

Nepal is often at the forefront of introducing laws and policies but weak and ineffective in its enforcement. It can only be hoped that history is not repeated and migrant workers and their rights are better protected and upheld in the days to come.

Baniya is the Assistant Director of Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility at Social Science Baha.

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