Doha, Qatar – Shayne* has been working for the same company in Qatar for seven years, reporting for duty six days a week at a food stall.
She has not received a salary increment during this period – and her pay was less than what was in the contract she signed in the Philippines before travelling to Qatar.
Looking for a new challenge, and a higher salary due to the increasing needs of her family back home, Shayne decided to resign in December last year and look for a new job.
“As soon as my resignation was sent, my manager called me and said the sponsor is angry, will cancel my visa and force me to go back to my country,” Shayne told Al Jazeera.
A few weeks later, Shayne was accused of holding two jobs – even though she was still coming in to work daily. Her ID was cancelled and she had a false abscondment case filed against her.
She was told she would be sent back home without her dues – pending salary and end-of-service benefits for the seven years of service.
“I thought the new laws were there to help us. All I did was try and seek a better job. I don’t think I’ve committed a crime to be facing these problems.”
On top of her dues, Shayne was lawfully entitled to a two-month notice period and then a three-month grace period to remain in the country to look for a new employer.
Her story is one of many Al Jazeera encountered when speaking to migrant workers who have recently tried to switch jobs.
Labour law changes
Under Qatar’s Kafala (sponsorship) system, migrant workers previously needed to obtain their employer’s permission – in the form of a no-objection certificate (NOC) – before changing jobs, a law that rights activists said tied their presence in the country to their employers and led to abuse and exploitation.
In August 2020, Qatar announced landmark changes to the labour law, including scrapping the need for an NOC.
The announcement was the latest in a series of labour reforms by the country whose treatment of migrant workers and human rights record have been under the spotlight since it was awarded the hosting of football’s 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“The new amendments also include increasing the number of labour dispute resolution committees in an effort to tackle the number of labour disputes, facilitate workers’ access to the rights, and expedite legal proceedings,” a Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (ADLSA) statement said in August last year.
While a number of workers have been successful in switching jobs, the majority of those interviewed by Al Jazeera experienced delays in the process as well as threats, harassment and exploitation by the sponsor, with some of the workers ending up in prison and eventually deported.
While some workers have withdrawn their transfer applications due to fear of being sent back home, others told Al Jazeera they had to go into hiding pending the outcome, scared of being arrested and deported.
“The announcement [six months ago] was received with great hope but unfortunately it has not been implemented well and is far from being a success,” Vani Saraswathi, director of projects at Migrant-Rights.Org, told Al Jazeera.
“Non-payment of wages was already a huge problem and, through the pandemic, thousands of workers were desperate to change jobs. Businesses that were struggling due to the pandemic now had to face a sudden spate of resignations, and were not able to carry out overseas recruitment to continue their operations.”
A Qatari government spokesperson told Al Jazeera in a statement that the reforms have “transformed” the labour market.
“The impact of these reforms cannot be underestimated. They have transformed the labour market,” the statement added. “In the final quarter of 2020 [when the laws were amended], the new system contributed to over 78,000 successful job transfers.
“Changing companies’ behaviour is not something that happens overnight but we are taking necessary measures to send a clear message that illegal activity will not be tolerated.”
Lawyers and activists working on some of these cases said the delays were because the authorities were overwhelmed by the high volume of transfer requests and complaints, and did not have enough resources to tackle them.
“The online system was not able to handle the upsurge in requests and there was not enough consultation and conversation with businesses to allay their fears,” added Saraswathi.
“We saw huge pushback against the reforms that have now led to the Shura Council to make recommendations that may well undo these reforms.”
‘Protection for the employers’ needed
In its first meeting of 2021, Qatar’s Shura Council, an advisory body responsible for deliberating and making suggestions on a number of issues, recommended that migrant workers be prohibited from requesting a change of employer during their contract period unless there are reasons justifying this or with the approval of their employer.
Among other things, it also sought to cap the number of times workers are allowed to change sponsors to three during their stay in the country.
Hend al-Muftah, member of the Shura Council, said while it was important to protect the workers’ rights, it was also important to protect the rights of the businesses.
“The Council has made its recommendations so I’m speaking in a personal capacity when I say that the recent adjustments [in August last year] were almost all for the sake of labour rights, without providing any protection for the employers,” al-Muftah told Al Jazeera.
“I’m in favour of treating workers well and giving them freedom and flexibility to move but what concerned me was having this done without regulations to monitor these processes and protect young entrepreneurs. For example, new entrepreneurs should be compensated for their hiring and training expenses if the worker decides to leave and contract duration should be taken into consideration.
“The recommendations strike a balance. We are fully behind the government and having rules and regulations but it shouldn’t come at the expense of businesses suffering. I also don’t believe in exploitation and if that’s happening at a work place, these workers should raise their voices and complain.”
Qatar’s labour ministry has maintained it welcomes workers lodging their complaints, but most of the workers Al Jazeera spoke to said they refrained for fear of repercussions – including abscondment cases – from their employers, having witnessed several examples of the power imbalance first-hand.
“Most workers don’t have the knowledge or support system to stand up to powerful employers and challenge these false charges,” added Saraswathi. “All of this serves to harass workers and discourage others from changing jobs.”
Migrant workers make up 95% of #Qatar’s labor force, without them the country would come to a halt.
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) August 24, 2020
‘Lucky’ to have benefitted from the system
Donna worked for a cleaning company for almost three years before deciding on a change of careers.
With all her paperwork in order, she applied for transfer in September last year, days after the law change was announced.
A week later, she received a message that her sponsor had filed a runaway report against her.
Various trips to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) offices and court ensued, but she managed to register successfully with her new sponsor.
“I’m one of the very few lucky ones to have managed that,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Some of my friends are now sitting in their country after the sponsor cancelled their visa and sent them back home because they wanted to switch jobs. They had been working seven days a week, up to 15 hours a day and hadn’t been paid for four months.
“They thought about complaining but were always threatened they’d be sent back home. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Head of the International Labour Organization’s Qatar office, Max Tunon, told Al Jazeera: “A large number of workers and employers have benefitted from the transformative new rules.”
“When such major changes are introduced, effective implementation can take time. This is why, jointly with the government, we are constantly engaging with workers and employers and receiving feedback on the implementation of the new procedures.”
Last year, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, described the changes as “a new dawn for migrant workers in Qatar to have a fair system, to end the Kafala system and normalise contracts with appropriate provisions”.
Shayne, though, awaits that clearance call from the CID. For now, she is too scared to go out of the house, fearing arrest and deportation.
* Workers’ names have been changed to protect identities. None of the workers wanted to name their employers for fear of reprisal but some have reported them to Qatar’s labour ministry.