Qatar 2022: Labor laws 'fail to prevent exploitation' ahead of World Cup

Posted at 8:47 PM, Dec 12, 2016
(CNN) -- Qatar can't seem to the shake ongoing controversy in the buildup to soccer's 2022 World Cup -- even as it introduces a set of new laws designed to improve the rights of migrant workers.
The legislation that takes effect on Tuesday is billed as a means of lessening the grip of corporate employers on the Gulf Emirate's 2.1 million expatriates.
However, Amnesty International's report "New Name, Old System?" attacks the new laws as "barely scratching the surface of labor exploitation."
It cites the continuous implementation of exit visas, along with the right to hold employees' passports, as evidence that human rights abuses for its hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are not being addressed forcefully.
Qatar's labor laws garnered worldwide attention in 2013 following release of French footballer Zahir Belounis after a two-year limbo existence.
Following a pay dispute with Qatari club El Jaish, Belounis was not granted permission to leave the country. He contemplated a hunger strike and even suicide before he was allowed to leave after an intervention by the French government.
Qatar's Government Communications Office vehemently denied Amnesty's claims in a statement on Monday.
"We remain committed to the development of a labor system that is fair to both employers and employees alike," it said. "These new legislative changes, combined with ongoing enforcement and a commitment to systemic reform ... will ensure workers' rights are respected across the entire labor pathway."
The intention to implement new laws was first declared in 2015, in a statement that promised to fine employers for confiscating workers' passports, and unveiled the formation of an Exit Permit Grievances Committee.
It also promised to remove Qatar's heavily criticized "kafala" system, a practice common in the Middle East where expats rely on their employers for visa sponsorships and maintaining legal status.
In general, workers were not allowed to switch jobs without approval from their current employers.
But rather than completely abolish workers' reliance on their employers for residency, the new system means workers' ties to employers will terminate after the length of their contract, or a maximum of five years.
In addition, workers' passports can be requested to be held by Qatari employers in certain cases where they live in confines that are considered at risk of being robbed.
"This new law may get rid of the word 'sponsorship' but it leaves the same basic system intact," Amnesty said in a statement.
"It is good that Qatar has accepted that its laws were fueling abuse, but these inadequate changes will continue to leave workers at the mercy of exploitative bosses."
Details are scarce
Details since the plans were revealed have been scarce, and attorneys are still waiting on executive regulations which will clarify exactly how the new rules will be implemented, according to Qatar-based employment lawyer Kamaljit Dosanjh of Al Tamimi & Company.
"I honestly don't see on a day-to-day basis how things will change," Dosanjh told CNN, referring to the plight of foreign workers in Qatar in an interview ahead of the new rules' introduction.
"It seems that the method of applying for an exit permit won't actually change with effect from tomorrow," she added, while stressing that she would not know for sure until she received the executive regulations, expected to be released on Tuesday.
Measuring the effectiveness of the new laws would also take some time, she noted.
Construction companies which manage thousands of workers and are on deadline to deliver the 12 stadiums for Qatar 2022 will want to stay on pace, Dosanjh said, and are likely to be working alongside the Qatari government to make sure the laws don't hinder their ability to complete on time.
"Behind the scenes, these things are still being nutted out," she added.
Amnesty said it wants Qatar "to conduct a systematic reform of its labor laws that unambiguously abolishes exit permits, completely bans passport confiscation, and frees workers from the requirement to get their employer's permission to change jobs."
"At the halfway point of preparations for the 2022 World Cup, the Qatari authorities have not done enough to address clearly documented human rights issues," it added. "FIFA simply cannot continue to remain shamefully ambivalent to the plight of workers in Qatar."
FIFA did not respond to CNN's request for comment on Qatar's employment reforms.
However, football's governing body released an independent report led by Harvard human rights professor John Ruggie in April "to embed respect for human rights across its global operations."
"This is an ongoing process, and of course challenges remain, but FIFA is committed to playing its part in ensuring respect for human rights and to being a leader among international sports organizations in this important area," FIFA president Gianni Infantino said at the time.
Last year Qatar Airways scrapped contracts which allowed its cabin crew to be at risk of being fired if they married or became pregnant within the first five years of employment, after pressure from the International Labor Organization.
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