The Qatari government has introduced a new labour law which it says will bring “tangible benefits” to workers in the country.
The new regulations, aimed at making it easier for migrant workers to change jobs and leave the country, came into effect on Tuesday.
“The new law is the latest step towards improving and protecting the rights of every expatriate worker in Qatar,” Issa al-Nuaimi, labour minister, said in a statement.
The Arab Gulf state is one of the wealthiest in the world, but its treatment of foreign workers from countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh has come under scrutiny as it spends billions of dollars on building new infrastructure in the run-up to hosting the 2022 football World Cup.
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 that rights groups say leaves workers prone to exploitation and forced labour.
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 riyals ($6,860) on businesses that confiscate employees’ passports.
Ashish [not his real name], a steel worker in Doha since 2007, said it was too soon for him to know if the new law would improve the situation.
Although he is in possession of his passport, the 36-year-old from India’s Uttar Pradesh state said overtime pay was an issue, and that his overtime pay was often late by as much as six months.
“Sub-contractors are rubbish; they don’t pay on time. They withhold salaries up to six months,” he said.
Still, Ashish is optimistic about one aspect of the new law.
We urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action
“Even if it’s difficult to seek a no-objection letter from my employer, as long as the new company I’m applying to is ready to give me a visa, I can exit Doha and come back in five to 10 days,” he said.
Amnesty International said in a statement that the new law would “barely scratch the surface of an abusive system”.
The UK-based rights group called on Qatar to abolish exit permits altogether and ban passport confiscation, as leaving those mechanisms in place leaves workers “at serious risk of human rights abuses”.
“We urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action,” minister Nuaimi said.
Qatar is building hotels, a port, a financial district and several football stadiums linked by desert highways as part of a $200bn 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 labour protests are banned.
The UN’s International Labour Organization will issue a report in March 2017, determining whether Qatar is taking sufficient steps to prevent forced labour.