Qatar must speed up reforms to protect migrant workers: Amnesty

'The legacy of the Fifa 2022 World Cup would be the hundreds of thousands of workers who were exploited to make it happen,' Amnesty said in its report.

Foreign workers leaving a construction site in Doha, Qatar. Amnesty released a report on November 12 urging the country to speed up its reforms on labour. EPA
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DUBAI // Qatar must act soon to address concerns about the abuse of migrant workers, or risk calling into question its commitment to labour reforms, said Amnesty International.

Six months after laying out plans for labour reforms, Doha has failed to substantially tackle issues such as the “kafala” employee sponsorship system that gives employers considerable sway over workers’ lives, said the UK-based human rights group.

Qatar has come under increasing scrutiny over its labour practices since 2010, when it was awarded the rights to host the 2022 World Cup by world football governing body Fifa.

In a new report, Amnesty said that Qatari officials increasingly acknowledge the existence of labour problems and the need for improvement. But it also warned that a failure to put serious changes in place in the coming months “will call into question whether the Qatari authorities are serious about reform”.

Qatar relies heavily on migrant workers drawn mainly from South Asia to build its roads, skyscrapers and stadiums.

“The legacy of the Fifa 2022 World Cup would be the hundreds of thousands of workers who were exploited to make it happen,” the group said.

In May, Qatari officials announced plans for new legislation that could eventually end the controversial sponsorship system in its current form.

Currently, migrant workers – who make up the bulk of Qatar’s workforce – typically must be sponsored by their employer to work legally.

The system ties expatriate workers to a single employer, and requires workers to obtain exit permits from their employers in order to leave the country. It leaves employees open to abuse, as bosses must approve workers’ departure from the country or their requests to change jobs.

Qatar’s labour and social affairs minister, Abdullah Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi, said last week that new labour legislation should be ready by the end of the year.

An advisory council must still weigh in on the draft law before it goes to the ruling emir for his approval.

The country plans to implement labour reforms in the “next few months”, said Qatar’s sports minister, Salah Bin Ghanem Bin Nasser Al Ali, this week.

“We understand this problem. For us, it’s a human question,” Mr Al Ali said. Qataris aren’t “vicious people who are like vampires ... We have emotions, we feel bad”.

The draft legislation was introduced after Qatar hired international law firm DLA Piper to examine its labour issues. The firm outlined dozens of recommendations, including changes to the sponsorship system and the eventual phasing out of exit visa requirements.

Reforms proposed by authorities this year would automatically grant workers exit permission 72 hours before their scheduled departure, though there would still be limits on how soon they could leave.

Amnesty said those proposals are not enough. As a first step, it is calling on authorities to abolish exit permits, investigate the causes of worker deaths, scrap fees for workers to file court cases against employers, publish names of “exploitative” recruiters and companies, and give domestic workers the same protections as other labourers.

James Lynch, the head of Amnesty’s business and human rights team, said it was important to keep pressure on Qatar because work on large-scale infrastructure projects that rely on migrant labour are racing ahead.

“The government hasn’t been taking the decisive action that it could take and should take,” he said. “There are a range of concrete steps that could be taken almost overnight ... that would serve as a signal and confidence builder that the government is really serious.”

* Associated Press