May 21, 2015 4:55 AM

Rights group: Qatar making little progress on labor reforms

The Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Qatar is failing to deliver on reforms for its migrant workers a year after the wealthy Gulf nation announced plans to improve conditions for low-paid laborers building its highways, hotels, stadiums and skyscrapers, Amnesty International said Thursday.

In a new briefing paper, the London-based rights group criticized the 2022 World Cup host for making no substantive changes on some labor issues, including the controversial "kafala" employee sponsorship system, and delivering only partial progress in other areas.

The report was released a day after three major World Cup sponsors Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa publicly pressured soccer's world governing body FIFA to push Qatar to do more to improve labor conditions.

Qatar is being transformed by a building boom fueled by its vast oil and natural gas wealth. Like other energy-rich Gulf nations with relatively small local populations, it relies on well over a million guest workers, many of them drawn from South Asian nations including India and Nepal.

Qatar responded to Amnesty's latest report by saying it disagrees with some of the claims and asserting it has made "significant changes" to improve working conditions.

The government believes that promoting human rights for guest workers and others is a "strategic choice and the backbone of the comprehensive constitutional, economic, social and cultural reform policy" of the country, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs said.

It cited a number of changes made over the past year, including efforts to boost the number of labor inspectors, provide better housing for workers and crack down on employers and labor recruiters who break Qatari law.

"We are all dealing with the unique challenges brought about by rapid economic growth and the high population of expatriate workers seeking better opportunities," the ministry said, adding that it is "committed to effective and sustainable change."

In May 2014, officials outlined plans for legislation that could end in its current form the kafala system that ties expatriate workers to a single employer.

The draft law also would allow workers to obtain exit visas without having to secure their employers' consent. Rights groups say the existing policies leave workers open to exploitation and abuse.

Amnesty says the reforms aren't coming fast enough.

"We've had a year, and not much has changed. For us that's a really important thing," Amnesty's Gulf migrant rights researcher Mustafa Qadri said in an interview. "The situation has probably gotten worse because you have more workers now. ... There's a matter of urgency."

The OPEC member state has come under intense scrutiny over its labor policies since winning the right to host the World Cup in 2010. Sepp Blatter, who is hoping to win a fifth term as FIFA president in elections next week, pressed Qatar's emir in March to do more to improve working conditions.

FIFA welcomed the Amnesty report, and said it along with trade unions and rights groups will continue to push Qatar to enact reforms and abolish the kafala system.

"FIFA has repeatedly urged publicly and with the highest authorities in Qatar that fair working conditions for all workers in Qatar are imperative," it said.

Statements by Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa on Wednesday will pile further pressure on FIFA and Qatar to improve working conditions.

Visa, for example, said it was "troubled by the reports coming out of Qatar related to the World Cup and migrant worker conditions" and has expressed its "grave concern to FIFA." None of the companies is threatening to drop its sponsorship.

In its briefing paper, Amnesty called Qatar's proposed changes to the kafala and exit visa system inadequate, and noted that none of those reforms has yet been implemented.

The reform legislation is currently under review by Qatar's consultative Shura Council. Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Abdullah Saleh Mubarak al-Khulaifi told The Associated Press earlier this month that he could not provide a timeframe for the law to be implemented, but he hoped it would come into effect by the end of the year.

Amnesty meanwhile said no new laws have been passed to protect the rights of domestic workers, and it noted that migrant workers remain blocked from forming or joining trade unions.

Only limited improvements have been made on other issues, including putting an end to hefty fees workers often pay to secure jobs and stopping deceptive recruitment practices that "can amount to human trafficking," according to Amnesty.

The rights group did acknowledge Qatar's progress on ensuring that workers get paid through a new system that requires companies to make direct deposits to workers.

But it cautioned that the system has yet to be fully implemented the labor minister can extend an August deadline and it remains unclear how it will protect what Amnesty said were tens of thousands of workers who do not get paid regularly or work under informal arrangements.


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