The football World Cup kicks off reform in Qatar

by Sasho Markovski

Capitalism and the free market economy have proven to be the most effective instruments for protecting workers and human rights. It has been a struggle, but Qatar was finally forced to change its labour law called “Kafala”. The state of Qatar is a small but very rich country, which relies heavily on foreign labour and imported knowledge to power its oil and natural gas-based economy. Qatar’s population is 2.3 million inhabitants, of which approximately 2 million are expats.

Under the Kafala system, the freedom enjoyed by expat employees was very limited. They were required to obtain sponsorship to work, approval to switch jobs or change employers and consent from their employer to quit and/or leave the country. Qatar faced a fierce criticism by the international community for these human rights abuses and inhumane labour laws, particularly for low-income manual workers.

The criticism was rightly increased after Qatar was selected to be the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. According to the Human Rights Watch, most of blue-collar workers perform their jobs in “near-feudal conditions” and their situation was compared to “forced labour”. During their examination, Amnesty International observed workers signing false statements that they had received their full salaries just to get their passports back so they could leave the country. Even by international businesses, foreign labourers were described as modern-day slaves to the local companies.

Since the cutting of diplomatic ties by several Arab countries in 2017, led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Qataris have been dealing with regional isolation and face an uncertain economic and security future. Moreover, FIFA and, more importantly, the World Cup sponsors did not want to be associated with “slave labour”. People vote with their money. Companies saw the potential backlash and boycotting of their products, so they put the pressure on the Qatari government to reform its labour laws.

For Qatar, sports have been an essential component in promoting its image on the global stage. The Qatar Investment Authority, a sovereign wealth fund, founded by the State of Qatar, has invested heavily in sports with Paris Saint Germaine Football Club being their most prized possession.

Realising that half the world is looking at his country through a magnifying glass in the lead up to the 2022 World Cup, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani announced two labour law reforms in October 2019. They have recently been signed into laws.

The international community has welcomed these Kafala reforms. If implemented as promised, the new laws should make it easier for expats to live and work in Qatar.  The first reform eliminates the “no objection” permission from the current employer for the worker to seek new employment. This allows foreign workers to resign and accept new jobs by providing written notice – bringing Qatar more into line with international norms. The second reform introduces a minimum monthly salary of 1000 Qatari Riyal ($275/230EU), plus food and living accommodation allowances.

It is an encouraging sign that Qatar is finally making a step in the right direction. But it is only one step in a long road. The new laws have hardly achieved the goal of fair working conditions. In 2008 the Qataris launched Qatar National Vision 2030. This plan rests on several pillars with the main aim of achieving national development by balancing natural and human resources. By introducing employment reforms, the Qatari government is looking beyond WC 2020. The World Cup is an amazing opportunity to attract foreign human capital. The challenge is to retain the foreigners and attract new ones after the final whistle is blown.

Qatar will be competing for foreign talent beyond the World Cup. If truly implemented and enforced, these new reforms could provide a great platform for attracting and retaining foreign workers, especially white-collar workers. For now, the international community and organisations should keep an eye on the implementation of the reforms and analyse how the free market economy is improving the lives of ordinary people. 

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