Doha’s skyline is seen at night. Image Credit: Reuters

Manama Qatar is considering a move to scrap the controversial sponsorship system for foreigners working in the country.

Under the system, all foreigners must be sponsored by local employers to be able to enter the country, take up work and leave.

“The sponsorship system will be replaced with a contract signed by the two parties,” Hussain Al Mulla, the labour ministry undersecretary, told local Arabic daily Al Arab on Tuesday. “The contract will stipulate the rights and duties of each party and will impose specific matters that the foreigner has to respect,” he said.

According to the Qatari official, Qatar came under tremendous pressure from international organisations for the use of the word “sponsorship.”

“We need to drop this reference and replace it with the contract between the two parties. The word ‘sponsor’ is equated by many with slavery more than anything else,” he said.

However, Al Mulla said that the cancellation of the contract does not allow the foreigner to switch jobs automatically.

“A foreigner can resign to take up another, maybe more lucrative job. However, the resignation annuls the contract and the foreigner will have to go home and the new employer will draw up a new contract with him that will allow him to return to Qatar,” he said.

Al Mulla did not specify a date for the implementation of the new system, but said the country was looking into the experiences of its neighbours despite the differences in their plans and the lack of common regulations on domestic help.

“We have yet to receive feedback from the Bahrainis, Kuwaitis and Saudis on their sponsorship experiences. However, we have now prohibited all companies from keeping the passports of their employees. This is a step forward towards the contract system and an affirmation of the intention to scrap the sponsorship system,” the official told the daily.

According to Al Mulla, Qatar is also looking into establishing a union committee that would defend the interests of Qatari and foreign employees.

“We wanted to set up the labour committee to help employees and lift off the pressure we and other Gulf countries have been under from several organisations. We are often asked about the non-existence of labour unions to defend labourers in Qatar. We had a labour committee during the days of oil companies. However, the situation in the Gulf is somewhat different because there are few Qataris who are labourers. However, the labour committee can be joined by employees as well,” he said.

Qatar’s prime minister endorsed the move to carry out a study to set up the labour committee, Al Mulla said.

“We carried out the study with assistance from the Arab Labour Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and some Gulf trade unions. They all came here and studied the Qatari case carefully. However, before we benefited from their experience, we worked on a draft for the committee which stipulated that it be made up of Qatari members. Foreigners have the right to vote, but they cannot be members of the board. The committee will not be under the custody of the labour union and will have the right to move to companies to check the working conditions. It can also receive complaints from labourers and defend their rights within Qatar,” Al Mulla said.

The cabinet has discussed the draft and transferred it to the Shura (Consultative) Council, he said. “We are now awaiting the Emiri approval.”

The non-governmental committee will have an independent building and an independent budget and will be funded by its members, he said.

Al Mulla said that the committee could at a later stage be modelled on the example of Maghreb countries.

“It can include workers, but also employees and professionals. The committee will defend the rights of workers and even employees in administrations,” he said.

Referring to the status of domestic helpers in Qatar, Al Mulla said that Doha has suggested to its fellow states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to approve a move that would ban a domestic helper who absconds or flees a GCC country from taking up a job in another GCC country.

“This will seriously help curb the phenomenon,” he said.

Al Mulla defended the decision to recruit domestic helpers from countries in Eastern Europe and China following divergences with traditional providers.

“The countries with which we signed deals already have accords with GCC countries and they had no problems. It all depends on how you treat the helpers and not on their nationalities. For us, helpers are members of the family and there is no need for concern,” he said.