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Qatar Pledges Labor Reform, But Rights Groups Say It Falls Short

Qatar is pledging labor-law reform in response to what critics have called systemic exploitation that traps thousands of foreign workers in low-wage jobs and squalid living conditions.

Construction workers at a building site in Doha, Qatar
Getty Images

The reforms proposed Wednesday include an abolition of the so-called kafala sponsorship system and removing the need for a visa to exit the country. They come as Qatar prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Qatar is relying on expatriate workers mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and parts of Africa to upgrade local infrastructure ahead of the World Cup and in line with the government’s economic development plans. These plans call for new railroads, a new port, road-building and hundreds of new apartment buildings, shopping centers and sports facilities.

While Qatar has been parlaying its energy wealth into international visibility and asserting itself politically in the region, the rise in stature has thrown a sometimes uncomfortable spotlight on long-established local practices, and at times caused political conflicts with neighboring countries. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

The labor reforms announced this week by interior ministry officials need the approval of Qatar’s Shura Council and other government departments before they’re enacted. They followed a government-commissioned report by the law firm DLA Piper on migrant labor in the construction sector.

Human rights groups said the moves fell short of full protection for migrant workers, given the lack of a timeline for passage and lack of clarity on enforcement.

Officials promised Wednesday to abolish the kafala system, where foreign workers need local sponsors who can stop them from changing jobs and even prevent them from leaving the country, but James Lynch, an Amnesty International researcher on Gulf migrants’ rights, said it sounded more like “a change of name rather than substantive reform.”

“Rather than re-jigging and renaming the sponsorship system, the government should commit now to genuine deep-rooted reform,” he said, calling for the government to address problems with access to justice, healthcare and punishment for companies that abuse migrant workers.

The International Trade Union Confederation called the changes “cosmetic,” noting they didn’t allow workers to form unions, establish a minimum wage or do anything to stop migrant deaths. Hundreds of workers have died in Qatar in recent years, according to figures from the Indian and Nepalese governments.

Labor systems like the one in Qatar are commonplace in the Arab Gulf and have long been criticized. Abu Dhabi is currently under scrutiny over conditions for workers building museums on Saadiyat Island, part of the emirate’s attempt to make itself into a cultural destination.

Most Gulf countries aside from Saudi Arabia have small populations of citizens relative to their wealth, which has made foreign labor necessary for development. Qatar’s population is about 85% expatriates.

Qatar’s reforms were prompted by rights groups but also by FIFA, which wants to avoid any stigma attached to the construction of World Cup stadia. Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee formulated a workers’ rights charter earlier this year and recently said no workers have died working on projects related to the tournament. FIFA president Sepp Blatter called the reforms a “significant step in the right direction.”

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(via WSJ Blogs)