Qatar has become the first Gulf state to introduce a non-discriminatory minimum wage for foreign workers, with employers in the construction sector likely to be the most heavily affected by the change.
Adopted on 30 August 2020, Law No. 17 establishes a minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275) for all foreign workers across all sectors of employment, as well as a minimum allowance of 300 riyals ($80) for food and 500 riyals ($133) for housing, unless an employer provides both.
The legislation, which came into effect on 19 March after a six-month transition period, also establishes a Minimum Wage Commission to review the impact and application of the minimum wage, and propose adjustments in consultation with government bodies, experts, employers, and workers.
The new law follows some earlier reforms to Qatar’s kafala – or sponsorship – system, allowing migrant workers to change jobs without the permission of their employer after the completion of a relevant notice period.
The reforms follow allegations of modern slavery in Qatar, with construction firms accused of systematically underpaying foreign workers and confiscating their passports on arrival into one of the richest countries in the world.
The introduction of a non-discriminatory minimum wage will directly affect at least 400,000 of Qatar’s approximately 2.5 million expatriate workers, or 20% of the private sector, according to the International Labour Organization.
While the new minimum wage will boost the incomes of some of Qatar’s lowest-paid workers, the level set remains low
According to reports, more than 5,000 companies have updated their payroll systems to comply with the new law, and the Qatari government has promised to penalise employers that fail to adhere to the legislation.
“Qatar’s new labour reforms are some of the most significant to date and could, if carried out effectively, considerably improve migrant workers’ living and work conditions,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“While these changes bring Qatar a concrete step closer to meeting its reform promises, the test will be in how effectively the government carries them out and consistently applies them.”
Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, said: “While the new minimum wage will boost the incomes of some of Qatar’s lowest-paid workers, the level set remains low.
“To truly make a difference it will need to be regularly reviewed and progressively increased to secure just and favourable conditions for workers.”
Following the announcement in 2010 that the Gulf state had won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar’s government planned to spend around $103bn on infrastructure projects ahead of the global sporting spectacle.
This large investment project has resulted in a booming construction sector and seen Qatar’s population, which includes just over 300,000 domestic citizens, swell to more than 2.7 million over the past decade with many foreign nationals employed in construction projects.
However, this public investment has come at a high price for those working in Qatar, with more than 6,500 migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, reportedly having died since 2010.
A 2019 report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found that the overwhelming majority of construction companies in Qatar and the UAE operate with high risks to human rights and continued disregard for workers’ welfare.
Earlier this month, the Qatari government announced a free WhatsApp service to provide up-to-date information for employers and expatriate workers about labour rights.
In 2016, Kuwait set a national minimum wage of 60 dinars ($200) a month for mostly Asian domestic workers who, on average, earn around $2,400 a year. Saudi Arabia has also reformed its labour laws following widespread criticism of the kafala system.