DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Qatar abolished exit visa requirements for virtually all migrant workers on Thursday in a move the U.N. labor organization said was a “milestone” in reform efforts ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The ministerial decree allows nearly all migrant workers in Qatar to leave the country without first obtaining permission from their employers. The exit visas were part of the “kafala” system, which critics say restricts workers' rights and leads to abuses.
However, Human Rights Watch said the latest reforms are “disappointing” and leave much of the “kafala” system intact.
Qatar changed its labor laws in October 2018 to remove the need for most private sector workers to obtain exit permits. The latest legislation expands those rights to domestic workers and those working in the public sector, the oil and gas industry, those employed at sea and those working in agriculture.
A government statement said the ministerial decree is “another important step taken by the Government of Qatar to create a modern labour system that strengthens Qatar’s employment laws and protects the rights of all expatriate workers.”
It said the decree would not apply to members of the armed forces, and that companies could designate 5% of their workforce which must still seek prior approval to leave, due to their importance in the running of the firm. It said domestic workers “should” notify their employers 72 hours before departure.
The International Labor Organization welcomed the changes.
“The ILO warmly welcomes these changes, which will benefit many migrant workers in Qatar," said Houtan Homayounpour, the the head of the U.N. labor body's office working with Qatar. "The removal of exit permits is an important milestone in the government’s labour reform agenda.”
Rights groups have long accused Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf nations — which rely heavily on migrant workers — of labor abuses. Qatar's hosting of soccer's world tournament in 2022 has shined a light on its practices and appears to have encouraged reforms.
Human Rights Watch said the latest reforms do not go far enough, and that Qatar has also been slow to introduce other reforms, such as employer consent to change jobs and a non-discriminatory permanent minimum wage.
"Even if the Qatari government introduced these promised reforms fully, it would still not mean an end to the exploitative kafala system," said Hiba Zayadin, a Human Rights Watch researcher.
She said workers are still tied to their employers in terms of their legal status in the country and can still face arrest and deportation if they leave their employer without permission.