Qatar complicit in 'modern slavery' despite reforms - unions

Oct 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Qatar has announced modest plans to reform its labor laws for foreign workers, but rights groups said on Wednesday that the 2022 World Cup host remains complicit in “modern slavery.”

Foreign workers employed in Qatar, making up nearly 90 percent of the population, still need permission to leave the country, keeping them at the mercy of their employers, said the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

“Promises of reform have been used as a smokescreen to draw in companies and governments to do business in Qatar as the Gulf state rolls out massive infrastructure developments to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement.

“The tragedy of 1.7 million migrant workers trapped in Qatar defines modern day slavery,” Burro said.

Legislation signed by Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on Tuesday will give foreign workers the ability to appeal to a government committee if their employer will not sanction their exit, local media reported.

Qatar is one of only a handful of countries including Saudi Arabia and North Korea which force workers to obtain approval from their employer or the state before being allowed to travel.

Businesses in Qatar lobbied to prevent major changes to what was previously known as the “kafala” system of labor sponsorship, fearing lost productivity and workers changing jobs frequently.

The changes do not take effect until next year, an official with Qatar’s Ministry of Labor said.

Under the reforms, foreign workers on open-ended contracts can change jobs without their employer’s permission after five years with a company but still need government approval, the official said.

The Ministry of Labor could not be reached for further comment after the close of business on Wednesday.

Foreign workers are prohibited from forming unions in Qatar.

The country plans to spend $200 billion on infrastructure related to the World Cup and has imported hundreds of thousands of construction workers for ambitious building projects.

Officials from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both dismissed Tuesday’s reforms. A representative of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East tweeted that Qatar’s reforms “send the message loud and clear: we don’t care about workers.” (Reporting by Chris Arsenault. Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit