DOHA (Reuters) – The Qatari government on Monday vowed that labor law reforms to make it easier for migrant workers to change jobs and leave the country would bring “tangible benefits” and urged patience from critics who say the proposed changes are inadequate.
The new law comes into effect on Tuesday in Qatar – which is spending billions of dollars on building new infrastructure ahead of hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup – but rights groups say foreign workers will still be vulnerable to abuse.
The gas-rich Gulf state is one of the wealthiest in the world but its treatment of foreign workers from countries like India, Nepal and Bangladesh has come under scrutiny as it prepares for the games.
“The new law is the latest step towards improving and protecting the rights of every expatriate worker in Qatar,” Labour Minister Issa al-Nuami said in a statement.
A work-sponsorship system known as “Kefala” currently requires all foreign workers to obtain their employer’s consent to travel abroad or switch jobs, a measure rights groups say leaves workers prone to exploitation and forced labor.
The reforms will establish the creation of state-run “grievance committees” to which workers can appeal if employers deny them permission.
They will also allow workers who have completed contracts to change jobs freely and imposes fines of up to 25,000 riyal ($6,865.87) on businesses who confiscate employees’ passports.
Amnesty International said in a statement that the new law would “barely scratch the surface of an abusive system”. The campaign group called on Qatar to abolish exit permits altogether and ban passport confiscation.
“We urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action,” al-Nuami said.
Qatar is building hotels, a port, a financial district and several football stadiums linked by desert highways as part of a $200 billion construction boom funded by natural gas revenues that have declined since global oil prices fell in mid-2014.
A workforce of 2.1 million foreigners outnumbers Qatari citizens by about 10 to one. Unions and labor protests are banned.
Japesh, an Indian construction worker waving traffic past a building site in Doha on Monday welcomed the reforms but said he would wait to see if the rules were enforced.
“They [our bosses] told us before that things would improve but last month our passports were taken and our pay was delayed again,” he said.
(Reporting by Tom Finn Editing by Noah Browning and Richard Lough)