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Qatar Under Fire for its Controversial Kafala System

Qatar has come under intense media analysis since winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, particularly for its poor labour conditions and laws. As I have uncovered in a previous article, migrant workers employed in the construction of the World Cup Stadium, face great abuse and exploitation. Part of this abuse, is the so-called kafala system, which under Qatar’s visa system, workers are not allowed to leave the country without the employer’s consent or work for anyone else other than their sponsor.

Moreover, expatriate workers must have a residence permit to be entitled to work. This can be provided by a local resident sponsor, an employer or the person inviting a visitor on his sponsorship. Those sponsoring expat workers are not accountable for providing an exit permit to workers, because it is the expatriate’s obligation to find another exit sponsor.

Zahir Belounis’ case

The French footballer Zahir Belounis, has been trapped for two years in Qatar, after his contract with the Qatar Olympic Commission was cancelled. The football player was told by Qatari authorities that he cannot leave the country unless he sues El Jaish, the team he played for, over claims for being unpaid for two years. But the team failed to pay him and told him that due to the kafala system of visa sponsorship, he will not be allowed to leave the country unless he drops the case.

Zahir’s dream to become a professional footballer has really vanished in the Gulf state. He was left helpless without pay. He even attempted a hunger strike and threatened to commit a suicide, but all in vein.

Bureaucracy is an obstacle to change

The International Community has pressed Qatari authorities many times to change this unfair policy. Even the French president intervened and negotiated with local authorities to release Belounis and his French colleague Stephane Morello who was also stranded in Qatar. However, the bureaucracy involved delayed the settlement of the issue.   

This situation is pitiful for a country which boasts so much wealth, natural resources and a diverse workforce. I believe that Qatar is better off investing in its human resource to keep on attracting the best talent from all over the world, rahter than scaring away potential skilled employees with the Kafala system.

It is imperative that fundamental human rights are safeguarded and there is a mutual understanding and negotiation among the employer and the employee for Qatar to progress from this point.  Last but not least, the application of laws and labour rules that center on human values are essential conditions for changing the situation in the Gulf state.

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