Qatar on Sunday introduced a new law which means most foreign workers will no longer have to secure an exit permit in order to leave the country.
The law, which was announced by the Qatari government last month, is an amendment to a previous law created in 2015, and "is significant because it removes the need for an exit permit (whether during the course of a labor contract or at the end of the contract)", Arnaud Depierrefeu, a partner at international law firm Simmons & Simmons, told Zawya via email.
Previously, workers in the country could apply to an 'exit grievance committee' as a kind of appeals body if an employer had refused to offer an exit permit.
However, there are still some restrictions in place. An employer can submit requests to the Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs, to maintain exit permits for up to five percent of their staff.
"This is likely to apply to certain management positions such as CEO or CFO who are signatories with the company’s bank accounts and could therefore leave the country with monies belonging to the company," explained Depierrefeu. "This exception is a way to address the concerns of the private sector over the potential risks of removing the exit permit system altogether."
The government's decision has been welcomed by the International Labor Organization, which said in a statement following the law's announcement last month that the change "will have a direct and positive impact on the lives of migrant workers in Qatar".
Houtan Homayounpour, the head of the ILO Project Office for the State of Qatar, said: "This first step towards full suppression of exit permits is a clear sign of commitment by the Government of Qatar to labour reforms and a key milestone in the process. The ILO will continue to work closely with the government of Qatar on these reforms.”
Gorvinder Pannu, a legal director at law firm Addleshaw Goddard, said the change would allow workers "greater freedom to leave the country at their own free will".
She said that provided an employee has completed the full term of a fixed term contract, or completed five years in a company where they have worked on an indefinite contract, they are free either to leave the country or stay in Qatar and take up another post. Approval for this would be required from the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, but not from their previous employer.
"If the employee wants to change jobs before his contract ends or before completing five years' service, then a no objection letter is required from the employer to transfer employment," Pannu said in an emailed response to questions from Zawya.
"Otherwise, the employee will have to remain outside of Qatar for two years before returning to take up another post."
Depierrefeu said that Qatar "has been under pressure to modernize its labor and immigration laws" since it won the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup back in 2011. The International Labor Organization even filed a case against the country in 2014, but retracted this in November last year as the government began to cooperate more closely with the organization, which then opened a project office in Qatar in April this year.
Levelling the field
Tristan Forster, head of Dubai-based labour supply and security consultancy FSI Worldwide, argued that the new law should make things better for all parts of the market, including employers. He said that as well as giving more freedom of choice to workers, it offers companies the ability to hire from within the country more easily and removes the obligation to return workers to their source countries if they want to stay and work elsewhere.
However, he also said during a phone interview with Zawya last week that the issue of the ethical sourcing of workers still needs to be addressed, given that some manpower firms charge workers huge fees to place them into construction jobs in the Gulf, meaning that many remain trapped in "debt bondage" to the agents who arrange their transfer.
"Addressing the ethical recruitment issue is actually the most important thing in all of this, probably," Forster said. "That said, if ethical treatment is addressed and if the law is actually enforced so that people are free to move, personally I think it's a very important thing because I think what you then end up getting is companies adhering to things like minimum recommended salaries and reasonable standards in terms of accommodation, feeding, working overtime. The whole worker welfare piece is likely to become much more of a level playing field between companies."
He said that companies who fail to pay market rates or provide decent conditions would then end up haemorrhaging workers.
"If standards are set clearly and enforced... if there's a level playing field and everyone is required to pay minimum salaries and everyone is required to pay reasonable recruitment fees for ethical recruitment to happen, and everybody is policed to ensure that they are doing the same thing...companies who are more inclined to do good and look after their staff are not disadvantaged in terms of winning contracts," Forster said.
(Reporting by Michael Fahy; Editing by Shane McGinley)
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