Qatar pledges on migrant workers' rights must be backed by action: rights groups

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Qatar, host of the 2022 soccer World Cup, has pledged a series of labor reforms in response to criticism of its treatment of migrants workers, but the promises must be backed by new laws and concrete action, human rights groups said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Workers test soil as they grow grass for Qatar's 2022 World Cup, at an experimental facility in Doha, Qatar November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon

Weeks before the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is to decide whether to investigate the Gulf state for worker abuse, Qatar has pledged to introduce a minimum wage and allow the monitoring of labor practices by trained inspectors.

Qatar also proposed measures to address restrictions on migrant workers’ ability to change employers and the removal of restrictions preventing migrant workers leaving the country without their employers’ permission.

These rules are part of the gas-rich state’s “kafala” sponsorship system, which rights groups say leave Qatar’s mainly Asian migrant workers, numbering about 2 million - open to exploitation.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, said genuine commitment to reform can only be proved by legislation and strict implementation of new labor laws.

“This agreement laid out the pathway for reform but Qatar has to travel that pathway,” Fabien Goa, migrant researcher for Amnesty International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“These are the core elements of the sponsorship system which drive the labor abuses.”

Gulf labor rights researcher Mustafa Qadri, executive director of Equidem Research & Consulting, said enforcement was crucial.

“Passing laws alone don’t really change anything. What we really need to see on the ground is actual change,” said Qadri.

Last year Qatar issued changes to the kafala system, allowing workers who have completed contracts to change jobs freely and imposing fines on businesses who confiscate employees’ passports, but rights groups said the measures did not go far enough.

In another effort to show commitment to tackling migrant worker exploitation, Qatar signed 36 worker protection agreements with countries that provide much of its labor force.

State media on Wednesday did not provide details of the bilateral agreements, but said they were in addition to five memorandums of understanding, preparations for a minimum wage, and an employment support fund that would help workers faced with overdue wages.

“There are variances in pay based on nationality so Qatar setting a minimum wage is really important,” said Qadri.

Qatar is expected to present a report by November on implementation of its reforms to the ILO, which will then decide whether to form a commission of inquiry, a rare sanction which the United Nations agency has imposed only about a dozen times since World War Two.