Despite claims of its imminent demise, Qatar’s controversial “kafala” sponsorship system — which critics say is a direct cause of misery and abuse for many foreign workers — clings stubbornly to life.

On Monday, in a sign of how entrenched the issue has become, Qatar’s normally quiet government used its new communications office to make a rare public statement and reassure critics that change to the system, which limits the rights of movement for foreign workers, really is on the way.

“The Council of Ministers will now prepare the final draft of the kafala reform legislation, which is expected to be completed before the end of 2015,” a statement read.

That deadline echoed an earlier wish by the minister of labour and social affairs, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Khulaifi, that “kafala” — likened by some critics to modern-day slavery — would be consigned to history by the end of the year.

Others are not so confident, however.

“I don’t think there’s any chance whatsoever that we will see an announcement in 2015,” Human Rights Watch’s Gulf Researcher Nicholas McGeehan told AFP.

The December deadline is not the first that Qatar has announced.

Last November, the labour and social affairs ministry said it would make an announcement on scrapping “kafala” early in 2015.

That deadline passed but the ministry then said it hoped to announce the end of “kafala” early in May. That has now slipped to December.

The latest roadblock came earlier this month when the Shura Council, Qatar’s main advisory body, questioned proposed reforms, sent the legislation back to committee for further consultation and even proposed some amendments of its own for good measure.

– Rights groups furious –

That prompted a furious reaction among rights groups and trade unions which questioned Qatar’s commitment to reform.

The latest spat demonstrates that despite its many critics, “kafala” still has many supporters, and crucially powerful ones.

Behind the closed doors in the corridors of power, it appears there is a struggle between those who back wholesale reform and those who are more cautious.

McGeehan calls it “a battle between conservatives and ultra-conservatives”.

Royal United Services Institute research fellow Michael Stephens, head of RUSI Qatar, said reform was proving difficult because “there’s not enough willingness among business operators to change”.

“People are doing very, very well out of the system.”

At the centre of the current argument, says a prominent Qatari lawyer, Yousuf Ahmed Al-Zaman, are two troublesome proposals, Article 7 and Article 21.

As it stands, the “kafala” system limits the rights of movement for foreign workers.

Under the proposals, limits remain but are relaxed.

– Step too far? –

Article 7 will allow the 1.6 million foreign workers in Qatar to leave the country after informing the interior ministry but crucially without approval from their employer, as is the case currently.

This is viewed as a step too far by some on the Shura Council, says Zaman, who believes a compromise allowing the employer a say will be found.

“When a worker wants to leave Qatar, the council’s objection was the need for the worker to inform the employer. This is not big,” he said.

Article 21, which the Shura Council also objected to, would allow foreign workers to change jobs without the consent of their boss.

Those with fixed contracts will, under any reform, be allowed to change jobs at the end of the contract; those on flexible contracts can change after five years.

Zaman believes the council’s concerns will be overruled, allowing the 2015 deadline to be met.

Internationally, the struggle over reform is largely fought through labourers toiling on World Cup projects, but McGeehan points out that Qatari concerns may have more to do with how the new laws affect domestic workers.

“All Qataris have domestic workers and unfortunately, fuelled by the racial discrimination we see in the Gulf, feel the need for control mechanisms to stop workers running away,” he said.

One other factor for the delay may be the constant criticism of Qatar from the West.

“I think there’s a bit of that,” said Stephens. 

“People are becoming tired of being bullied and pushed about. They feel they have been set upon.” – Agence France-Presse

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