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The New Arab

Qatar defends labour reforms despite human rights group criticism

Qatar has imported hundreds of thousands of construction workers [AFP]

Date of publication: 13 December, 2016

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The Qatari government has responded to claims that the latest labour reforms may not provide sufficient protection for the country's migrant workers.
Qatar has defended its recent labour law reforms despite criticism that the new changes may not end the exploitation of the country's migrant workers.

The Qatari government said a new law that came into effect on Tuesday would replace the controversial "kafala" or sponsorship system that forces foreign workers to seek their employer's consent to change jobs or leave the country.

Read also: Qatar 'flew home 10,000 abused workers' last year

In a recent report titled 'New Name, Old System?' Amnesty International warned that the new law no. 21/2015 "barely scratches the surface" in addressing Qatar's flawed labour system, and still leaves migrant workers at the mercy of "exploitative bosses" and at risk of being subjected to "forced labour".

"This new law may get rid of the word 'sponsorship' but it leaves the same basic system intact," said James Lynch, Deputy Director for Global Issues at Amnesty International.

"The tragedy is that many workers think that this new law will be the end of their ordeal."

The new law retains the exit permit system, which allows employers to keep workers in Qatar against their will for up to five years, and to stop workers from changing jobs during their contract. 

It also now allows employers to keep workers' passports, which was previously illegal although rarely enforced. 

"By making it easier for employers to confiscate workers' passports, the new law could even make the situation worse for some workers," Lynch said.

The tragedy is that many workers think that this new law will be the end of their ordeal
- James Lynch

In a statement on Monday, the Qatari government's communications office responded to Amnesty's report, rejecting claims that the new law would fail to provide sufficient legislative protection for migrant workers in Qatar.

"We remain committed to the development of a labour system that is fair to both employers and employees alike," the statement read.

"These new legislative changes, combined with ongoing enforcement and a commitment to systemic reform, not just in Qatar but also in countries of origin, will ensure workers' rights are respected across the entire labour pathway."

Earlier on Monday, Qatar's labour minister Issa al-Nuaimi said that the new law was "the latest step towards improving and protecting the rights of every expatriate worker in Qatar", urging the international community "not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action".

'Modern slavery'

Other critics of the Gulf nation's labour reforms include the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which says that under the new law, workers are still banned from forming unions and from collective bargaining, and in the absence of a minimum wage, they are paid according to their country of origin rather than the actual job they do.

"Qatar has re-named the appalling kafala system, but the fact is that migrant workers will remain bonded to their employers," Sharan Burrow, ITUC's General Secretary, said in a press released on Tuesday.

"Putting new labels on old laws does not remove the stain of modern slavery, and workers will continue to be forced to work under a feudal employment system."

These new legislative changes, combined with ongoing enforcement and a commitment to systemic reform... will ensure workers' rights are respected across the entire labor pathway
- Qatari government

Qatar is spending billions of dollars on massive infrastructure projects to prepare for hosting the World Cup in 2022 and has imported hundreds of thousands of construction workers from countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh for building projects.

Bangladeshi labour activists said on Friday they had joined a lawsuit in Switzerland against FIFA for allegedly failing to use its influence to ensure people working on World Cup facilities in Qatar are treated fairly.

The suit, filed in FIFA's home city of Zurich with the backing of the Netherlands' largest labour union, calls on FIFA to force Qatar to adopt "minimum labour standards" for migrant workers preparing for the tournament.

"International companies operating in Qatar must ensure that their entire operations in the country comply with international labour standards, in the absence of 21st century labour laws, and FIFA and other sports bodies which are doing business with Qatar need to finally put exert real pressure for genuine reform," said Burrow.

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