By Ed Upright
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - - Qatar's labor law reforms won't end the abuse and exploitation faced by migrant workers in the country - and may even make it worse, human rights groups said on Monday.
The Qatari government said a new law coming into effect on Tuesday will replace the controversial "kafala" or sponsorship system that forces foreign workers to seek their employer's consent to change jobs or leave the country.
Rights groups say the kafala system has forced workers to live in squalor and toil under dangerous, sometimes fatal, conditions which amount to modern-day slavery.
Qatar is spending billions of dollars on infrastructure related to the World Cup it is hosting in 2022 and has imported hundreds of thousands of construction workers from countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh for ambitious building projects.
The reforms won't lead to significant changes on the ground, however, according to an Amnesty International report which says workers will continue to need their employer's permission to change jobs and will still require exit permits to leave the oil-rich Gulf state.
"This new law may get rid of the word 'sponsorship' but it leaves the same basic system intact," James Lynch, deputy director for global issues at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
"FIFA [football's governing body that organizes the World Cup] its sponsors and foreign governments seeking business ties with Qatar cannot and must not use this reform to claim that the problem of migrant labor abuse has been solved."
According to Amnesty, abusive employers can also withhold workers' passports under a new loophole - something that wasn't allowed under the previous laws.
The International Trade Union Confederation told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that despite the new laws, "Qatar remains a slave state".
ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said: "This is just new labels on old laws. The exit permit system still remains a fact of life. This is just a relabelling of an extremely exploitative system."
The Qatar government on Monday said the reforms would make it easier for migrant workers to change jobs and leave the country, bringing "tangible benefits".
"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.
"We urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action."
The Qatari embassy in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Amnesty report on Monday.
Bangladeshi labor activists said on Friday they had joined a lawsuit in Switzerland against FIFA for allegedly failing to use its influence to ensure people working on World Cup facilities in Qatar are treated fairly.
The suit, filed in FIFA's home city of Zurich with the backing of the Netherlands' largest labor union, calls on FIFA to force Qatar to adopt "minimum labor standards" for migrant workers preparing for the tournament.
(Reporting by Ed Upright; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)