Qatar announced Monday it is introducing long-expected reforms to policies governing its vast foreign-labor force, though the changes still require workers to seek clearance from their bosses before leaving the country.
The new policies follow years of intense criticism from labor and human rights activists over working conditions in Qatar. The natural gas-rich country is in the midst of a torrid building boom tied to its hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
Critics say Qatar’s long-standing “kafala” sponsorship system binding workers to their employer leaves migrants open to abuse, and in some cases can amount to forced labor.
Qatar touted the reforms as abolishing the kafala system altogether. Rights groups say the changes fall far short of what is needed to protect the armies of mostly Asian low-wage workers transforming the tiny country.
A statement released by the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs said the changes are intended to ensure “greater flexibility, freedom and protection” to the more than 2.1 million workers in Qatar.
The minister responsible for labor, Issa bin Saad al-Jafali al-Nuaimi, said Qatar welcomes constructive criticism and he urged outsiders to give the law time to take root before drawing any conclusions. He said the ministry is boosting its monitoring efforts and hiring more labor inspectors to enforce compliance.
“We are doing this because we believe it is the right thing to do and because it provides tangible new benefits to expatriate workers,” al-Nuaimi said.
Although the statement suggested the policies take effect Monday, the government subsequently confirmed they would only become law on Tuesday — a year after the ruling hereditary emir signed off on the change.
Under the new law, workers will generally be free to leave Qatar so long as they inform their employer first. Employees whose bosses refuse can appeal to a government committee that must address requests within three days.
Workers who have unsettled debts — potentially anyone who has taken out a local credit card, mortgage, or car or personal loan — or those wanted as part of a criminal case can be forced to stay.
The law allows workers to change jobs, but only after they complete an existing fixed-term contract or have worked five years on an open-ended one.
Rights activists that have examined the reforms say they continue to leave workers ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
“This new law may get rid of the word ‘sponsorship’ but it leaves the same basic system intact,” said James Lynch, Amnesty International’s deputy director for global issues.
He urged soccer’s world governing body FIFA, its sponsors and those seeking to do business with it or Qatar to “not use this reform to claim that the problem of migrant labor abuse has been solved.”
Human Rights Watch echoed that sentiment.
“The message this law sends is that Qatar doesn’t really care much about migrant workers,” said Joe Stork, the group’s deputy Middle East director. “Its sponsorship system remains a serious stain on Qatar’s international reputation.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino earlier this year promised to create a panel to monitor working conditions at World Cup stadiums in Qatar.
World Cup organizers say some 36,000 people will work on its projects next year. Many more workers toil away on other job sites such as roads, hotels and public transportation links that will cater to fans attending the games.