A lobby of workers in the Horn of Africa region is calling on other Gulf counties to start labour reforms similar to those in Qatar as a long-term policy to protect labourers.
In the wake of reported abuse of domestic workers in the Gulf nations, the Horn of Africa Confederation of Trade Unions (Hactu) said on Friday there was a need for progressive reforms to ensure workers from the region are protected wherever they work in the Gulf.
The lobby, an association of labour movements in eight countries that form the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), wrote to Qatar, asking that it shares its experience on reforms with peers in the Gulf to speed up labour rights reform.
The union, in a letter to Qatari Minister for Labour, Dr Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, asked him to “help facilitate the protection of the rights of migrant workers from the eight Horn of Africa countries, namely Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Uganda through bilateral and multilateral relations with other Gulf countries. “
The joint call says Qatar’s recent adjustments to migrant labour policies have been “progressive” and that it should be emulated by neighbours “in the Gulf region and the Arab world at large, which receive hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Africa and Horn of Africa countries in particular.”
Rising cases of abuse
They made the call after their annual general meeting in Hawassa, southern Ethiopia. The meeting was sponsored by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the global body that watches over labour rights and policies across the UN member states.
The Hactu, which is accredited to Igad as an observer, held the meeting on the backdrop of reported abuse cases by Horn of Africa labourers in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Last week, Kenyan authorities repatriated a woman who had travelled to Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic worker, only to fall sick and was denied access to adequate medical attention.
For Qatar, however, the ILO says it has made progress on labour rights, especially as it prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in November.
A report by rights watchdogs had accused Doha of overlooking violations such as long working hours, low wages and poor healthcare service for migrant workers in a country with more than two million foreign employees.
But a recent report by the ILO says Qatar has made changes, including removing some restrictive elements of the kafala (sponsorship) system, such as a requirement for exit permits and employees being allowed to change employers without no-objection certificates from their current employers.
It also introduced a non-discriminatory minimum wage of $500, established wage protection monitors, workers’ support insurance fund, and some workplace safety codes.
As a result, “between September 2020 and March 2022, over 300,000 workers (including 7,000 domestic workers) changed jobs,” the ILO report says.
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However, the country may still need to explain the actual reforms on the kafala system, which has seen some employers still abuse it.
In other Gulf countries, discrimination and enslavement still exist, something the lobby says should end. They said Qatar should also share reform experience with the Horn of Africa countries “to promote a conducive working environment for workers of our region.”
“We want to replicate the progressive labour reforms in Qatar in other Arab and Gulf countries which have poor laws,” said Kassahun Follo, the General Secretary of Hactu.
Hactu includes labour unions from all Igad countries, such as the Confederation of Ethiopia Trade Unions (Cetu), Central Organisation of Trade Unions – Kenya (Cotu), Federation of Somali Trade Unions (Festu), South Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation, Sudan Workers Trade Unions Federation, National Organisation of Trade Unions-Uganda, Djiboutian Union of Workers and National Confederation of Eritrean Workers.
In February this year, the unions joined the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), the continental workers’ body, on a fact-finding mission in which they said the country was improving on the welfare of workers.
Officials of ITUC-Africa told journalists then that they were satisfied with the progress, including changing labour laws to allow workers to change jobs without permission from current employers.
“ITUC-Africa welcomes the pieces of reform that the Qatari state has undertaken and considers them progressive,” the continental body’s General Secretary Kwasi Adu-Amankwah told a briefing.