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February 9, 2016
World Cup can make the labour fields greener for expatriates in Qatar

Former Qatar U17-football coach Ove Pedersen, had issues terminating his contract and exiting the country due to the kafala system (Photo: Getty Images)
by Frederikke Amalie Muff, AIPS Young Reporter, Denmark
DOHA, February 9, 2016 - Fleeing a country to escape a life in comfort under pretence of a sister’s fake wedding sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie. However, this was the real life events of Danish football coach Ove Pedersen, who coached Qatar’s U17-football team from 1996-1997.

When Pedersen wanted to terminate his contract with the Gulf state, the coach felt the process was so long that he ended up telling his employers that he needed to go home for his sister’s wedding – a wedding that had taken place 20 years earlier – in order to get his exit visa, the coach told Danish football website bold.dk.

After returning home to Denmark, he contacted his then former employers. They agreed on his termination and the coach reported that they are still on good terms today.

However, Pedersen’s experience of difficult termination processes and pursuit of exit visa is not unique. On the contrary this has been one of the main points of criticism on Qatari Labour Laws by international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Employers in charge of worker’s legal residence and exit visas

More specifically, the country that had the second highest GPD per capita in 2013, has faced increasing criticism targeted at what is called the kafala system, ever since 2010 when it was announced that Qatar was to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The kafala system, which is not exclusive to Qatar but also present in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, means that the expatriate’s legal residence depends on his or her employer.

Reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also states that the kafala system, also referred to as a ‘sponsor system’, demands the workers to get exit visas from their employers in order to leave the country. Furthermore the employees need a ”No Objection Certificate”, which reportedly can be hard to get, from their employer, should they wish to transfer to another employer.

The majority of the private work force is expatriate in Qatar, which had only approximately 16,000 inhabitants before the oil exploitations in 1949. In 2010, the non-Qatari population in Qatar alone was estimated to be more than 1.4 million people by the think tank Gulf Labour Markets and Migration, and in 2016 the total population has reached 2.4 million people.

Kafala is not just a construction worker issue

Although much of the media attention to kafala has focused on construction workers in the preparation for the World Cup, the system is in place for all expatriates in the Qatar and is thus an issue in other branches of employment apart from construction.

A more recent – and arguably darker – example from the world of sports was when CNN in 2013 reported on the French-Algerian football player Zahir Belounis, who didn’t received his wages and was denied an exit visa due to a dispute with his club El Jaish. In contrast to the happy, albeit strange, ending to the story of Ove Pedersen, Belounis’ was entirely different, as his sports career was over, by the time he managed to get his exit visa and moved to Spain.

Reform of labour laws promise change

However, fresh winds are blowing in the Gulf state, as 2022 and the FIFA World Cup approaches. The Qatari state recognizes, and has taken steps towards changing, the labour law issues at hand.

“It is a problem we are well aware of but I also think is now in the past. Our Government is taking the right steps in order to prevent this procedure that is not part of our standard. If it exists is practiced illegally, and it's our duty to eradicate it" said Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Former Secretary-General of the Qatar Olympic Committee.

In November 2015, the labour laws of Qatar faced reform, allowing migrant workers to get exit permit with a 72-hours notice and to get the ”No Objection Certificate” at the end of their employment. The latter, however, can only be secured if the employee has been five years with the same employer.

Thus the fresh winds may not blow with hurricane strength, but the FIFA World Cup has already been a catalyst for change within Qatar and may prevent expatriates to turn to drastic measures or fake weddings. Maybe the event can make the grass a bit greener both for those on the football field and those constructing the walls around it.

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