By Amena Bakr
DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar unveiled plans for labor reforms on Wednesday after persistent criticism from rights groups over its treatment of workers, but it set no timetable and the changes would still leave employees without a minimum wage or trade unions.
Qatar has the highest proportion of migrant workers per population in the world and a lack of workers' rights has attracted international attention as the country prepares to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.
Pressure on the Arab country grew after Britain's Guardian newspaper reported in September that dozens of Nepali construction workers had died and that laborers were not given enough food and water. Qatari and Nepali officials denied the report.
The proposed reforms include replacing a contentious sponsorship law, known as "kafala", in which workers need their employer's permission to change jobs, with a system based on employment contracts, officials said in Doha. An exit permit law requiring workers to obtain an employer's consent to leave Qatar will also be reformed.
The proposals follow a Qatar-sponsored review of its labor legislation by British-based law firm DLA Piper, which made a number of recommendations including the creation of a minimum wage for each category of construction worker.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has said more than 1,200 men have died in preparations since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010. Qatar has said no construction workers have died working on a World Cup site.
In response to the planned reforms, the ITUC said the announcements gave no guarantee for workers in Qatar.
"No moves were announced to stop the death and injury toll amongst the migrant workforce," it said in a statement.
The reforms envisaged do not include the creation of trade unions or the establishment of a minimum wage. Officials outlining the changes at a press conference said that wages were dictated by market supply and demand.
Under the reforms, workers will have their wages paid electronically to avoid late payments. And the country would adopt a "unified accommodation standard", a measure apparently aimed at improving the quality of migrant workers' housing, which is often spartan or squalid.
The officials also propose raising to 50,000 riyals ($13,700) from 10,000 riyals a fine for employers holding the passport of an employee, a common practice among most construction firms and other companies in Qatar. Currently the fine is rarely enforced.
"Let it be clear the current kafala system will be replaced with a system based on employment contracts and that will govern the relationship between the employer and employee," said Abdullah Saqr al-Mohannadi, director of the human rights department at the ministry of interior.
But these proposals would now have to go through the Shura Council, a consultative body, as well as Qatar's chamber of commerce and government departments prior to their conversion into law, said Muhammad Ahmed al-Atiq, assistant director general of expatriate affairs at the ministry of interior.
"God willing we hope that this will happen soon, but it's hard to put a timeframe," he said.
Unions are banned in Qatar, the world's top exporter of liquefied natural gas, and workers who strike in protest are often deported.
Human rights organization Amnesty International described the proposed reforms as "a missed opportunity" for Qatar.
"Based on today's announcement the proposals appear to be a missed opportunity. The government claims it is abolishing the sponsorship system, but this sounds like a change of name rather than substantive reform," James Lynch, Amnesty's researcher on migrants' rights in the Gulf, said in a statement.
"While some of the measures announced today are positive and if implemented would improve conditions for workers, they do not go nearly far enough," he added.
However, Sepp Blatter, president of world soccer's governing body FIFA, welcomed the changes and has decided to postpone a scheduled trip in mid-May to Doha until after the 2014 FIFA World Cup, to allow him more time for him to gain an understanding of the reforms, FIFA said in a statement said.
"This announcement is a significant step in the right direction for sustainable change in the workers' welfare standards in Qatar. We look forward to seeing the implementation of these concrete actions over the next months," Blatter said in the statement.
According to DLA Piper's report, Qatar has 1.39 million migrant workers, which makes its the highest migrant to citizen ratio in the world, with migrant workers making up 85 percent of the population. DLA's report also found that the prescribed accommodation standards, which allow a maximum of four people in a room, are not being met by some contractors.
($1 = 3.6407 Qatar riyals)
(Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by William Maclean and Susan Fenton)