HRW: Qatar Should Improve Work on Labor Reforms

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Al-Akhbar Management

Published Friday, February 6, 2015

Much-publicized labor reforms in Qatar are not moving "far or fast enough" despite growing international pressure for change by the 2022 World Cup host nation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday.

The watchdog called for "stronger action" by Qatar, which has come under a global spotlight to improve conditions for thousands of migrant laborers working to construct facilities for football's showpiece event.

Nicholas McGeehan, HRW's Qatar researcher, pinned the blame on "naysayers" within the authorities. Although the Gulf emirate had made some progress, much more needed to be done, and quickly.

"I think it is right the reforms aren't going far enough and they are not going fast enough. There is no timetable for reform," he told reporters at a press conference in Doha for the launch of HRW's World Report 2015.

McGeehan said he was not trying to "bash Qatar" and praised efforts by the energy-rich Gulf state on issues such as pay.

He said he expected Qatar to implement "very soon" a wage protection system which ensured workers are paid on time, one of the biggest complaints voiced by rights groups. However, he said Qatar was yet to adequately tackle issues "responsible" for the labor problems in the country.

These included reforms to the controversial "kafala” sponsorship system, which enables employers to prevent foreign workers from leaving the country or changing jobs and has been likened to modern-day slavery.

McGeehan also cited the confiscation of passports by employers, workers not being issued an exit visa so they can leave Qatar if they wish, and migrant laborers having to pay recruitment fees.

"We need to see much stronger action on those and that is what's not being addressed, so that is really where our main concerns lie," he said, adding that the political will was there among some in the Qatari government to reform but "there is clearly a depth of opposition to reform that is holding back the process."

Late last year, Qatar pledged to introduce new legislation to replace the kafala system and improve conditions for migrant workers by early 2015.

"We expect to make announcements about new legislation by early next year," Qatar's labor and social affairs ministry said in a statement released last November.

Last May, Qatar also said it would replace the sponsorship system with one based on employment contracts.

In mid-November, Amnesty International said that “Qatar is still failing on workers’ rights ahead of the World Cup” and “has made only minimal progress” on its announcement in May.

In a report titled, “No extra time: How Qatar is still failing on workers’ rights ahead of the World Cup,” the organization said that Qatar has not fulfilled a series of reforms it announced nine months ago to tackle exploitation ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

The report urged the country to start an “independent” investigation into the causes of death of many migrant workers, and reduce the high costs required for them to take legal action against employers. It also called on Qatar to publish the names of exploitative recruiters and employers.

Human rights groups and FIFPro, the global union representing footballers, have urged Qatar to abolish the kafala system altogether. And earlier this year, Qatar said it was considering imposing penalties against firms that fail to pay migrant workers on time but the reforms are being held up, McGeehan said.

"There are two camps [within government] and unfortunately the naysayers are winning the battle at this stage," he said.

"I don't think there is any doubt that people are holding back reform, that what Qatar planned to put in place in May of last year was much stronger than the reforms or pledges that were announced."

Qatar had "put itself in the spotlight" and had to respond.

"Two years ago we said if Qatar did not make reforms it would become synonymous with exploitation and it did," he added.

Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that also includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and United Arab Emirates. All GCC countries have come under fire for the kafala system of sponsorship for migrant workers, which is used to varying extents across the Gulf.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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