DOHA: The last stop of the recent Department of Labor and Employment’s Rapid Response Team (RRT) during its Middle East mission is the tiny kingdom of Qatar. Headed by undersecretary Ciriaco Lagunzad 3rd, the DOLE-RRT constituted by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd first traveled to Kuwait (currently under a total deployment ban) and to the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah and Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia to assess the situation of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
As a member of the DOLE-RRT, I attended the briefings and dialogues with our counterparts in the Qatar Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs (MADLSA) regarding the initiatives being taken by the Qatar government to protect and promote the welfare of expatriate (i.e. foreign) workers, including Filipino migrant workers.
Qatar is an important pit stop not only because it is host to around 240,000 OFWs but also because it is currently under a blockade by some of its neighbors in the Gulf. Last June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt abruptly cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed trade and travel bans on the pint-sized state.
So far, I have not seen any significant impact of the blockade on Qatar. Having the highest per capita income in the world—the country has the world’s third-largest natural gas and oil reserves—the trade and travel embargo by its Gulf neighbors does not appear to have dented its high-income economy.
Recently, the International Labor Organization (ILO)—the tripartite UN agency that brings together governments, employers and workers to set labor standards and develop policies and programs for all workers—established an office in the kingdom. And as the host of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, I’m sure Qatar is eager to show to the international community that its labor polices and regulations can be at par with global standards recognized by ILO.
If Qatar makes good on its initiatives for expatriate workers, it can be the model or template for the entire Middle East bloc, which is beset with labor problems arising from the “kafala” system. Under the kafala, a local citizen or company “sponsors” foreign workers in order for them to have valid work visas and residency permits. The kafala system, however, is prone to abuse as it places our OFWs at the mercy of their sponsors (or “kafeel”) who can cancel their permits or deny their exit visas on a whim.
One of the initiatives of the Qatar government is to do away with labor courts, which, incidentally, are notorious for their lengthy adjudication process. In their stead, the government has created three labor committees or panels to expedite the resolution of labor disputes and ease the litigation procedures for expatriate workers in the country.
The labor committees will start operating on March 18. The MADLSA and the Supreme Judicial Council of Qatar have announced that the labor courts will no longer accept any new labor case beginning March 18, 2018. According to the public advisory, all labor complaints involving workers in the private sector will be received by and filed with the MADLSA offices.
The MADLSA has promised that all disputes before the committees will be resolved within three weeks while the maximum period for deciding appeals will be one month. If this really happens, this will be a big improvement from the usual four to eight months litigation process in the labor courts alone, excluding appeals.
Aside from creating the labor committees, the Qatar labor ministry also vowed to pass a new law that would allow foreign workers (our OFWs included) to leave the country without the need for exit visas from their sponsors. Excluded from this law are expatriate workers holding key or sensitive positions in companies as well as domestic (or household) workers.
If this comes to fruition, it will effectively dismantle the kafala system, at least insofar as our skilled OFWs are concerned. Our counterparts in the Qatar labor ministry, however, vowed to adopt this law for domestic workers should the scheme prove successful.
To prevent labor disputes from arising in the first place, the MADLSA has proposed that a technical working group be created, together with Qatar’s interior ministry (which handles domestic workers) and the Philippine government (through DOLE), in order to come up with a common employment contract for all expatriate workers, thereby avoiding contradictory or inconsistent employment terms and conditions.
Pending the crafting of the new unified contract, the Qatar labor ministry promised that all employment contracts will now be required to pass through, and be stamped by, our Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Qatar before it is accepted and processed by the MADLSA. With this new arrangement, our POLO can verify whether the employment contracts of our OFWs are compliant with the rules and regulations established by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to protect the welfare of our migrant workers.
The declarations of Qatar’s labor ministry are indeed a very promising. Whether these are actually implemented and enforced is another matter. We will know within the year whether the labor initiatives of the Qatar government are truly pioneering steps—or just mere promises.