Qatar's "kafala" employment system for foreign workers, likened by some critics to modern slavery, could be abolished by the end of 2015, according to the Gulf kingdom's labor minister.
Abdullah bin Saleh al Khulaifi told reporters on Monday that he was "90 percent" certain that the kafala system — under which the visa and residency status of migrant workers are dependent on the sponsorship of a specific employer, who can stop them from leaving the country or switching jobs — would be replaced before next year.
"We discussed it, our stakeholders have looked at it… Now it is on track [to end]," said the minister during a press briefing in Doha, according to AFP. "Do I believe it will come out positively? Yes, I do. Because at the end of the day I believe it is good for the economy, it's good for the country."
The kafala system, which is used by all Gulf states apart from Iraq, has been regularly and forcefully condemned internationally, and has come under increasing scrutiny since the December 2010 announcement Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup. Human rights groups and media outlets have documented the widespread and systematic abuse of foreign workers in Qatar, one of the world's wealthiest countries.
Many of Qatar's 1.4 million foreign laborers — who make up 99 percent of the country's private sector workforce — suffer overcrowded and squalid living conditions with overflowing sewage tanks and no air conditioning. They often work excessive hours in temperatures that can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and paychecks are often delayed by months.
A Guardian investigation last September revealed Nepalese migrants died at a rate of one every two days in Qatar in 2014, of sudden cardiac arrests, heart attacks, and workplace accidents, and there was evidence of forced labor on at a huge World Cup infrastructure. German TV company WDR said this week some of its reporters had been arrested while filming with migrant workers in Doha and their equipment confiscated and footage deleted.
Last March FIFA President Sepp Blatter told Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani that more must be done to improve the situation for migrants.
A reformed framework which has been discussed by the cabinet would see contracts lasting a maximum of five years, and workers being allowed to leave within 72 hours of notifying authorities instead of having to seek permission from employers. It's now under consideration by the country's legislative body, the Shura Council.
Khulaifi said the issue of late or non-existent paychecks would be solved by mid-August with the introduction of an electronic system that would deliver salaries monthly or fortnightly.
He also told the AP that authorities recognized the poor standards of accommodation for foreign workers were a problem. "Our delay nationally of accommodating properly such a population I think (was) a mistake that we are trying to remedy now… Current substandard labor accommodations are unacceptable." He added that the number of labor inspectors had been doubled to 294 in less than two years and that 100 more would be hired.
Amnesty International told AP the proposals did not go far enough. "It's another form of kafala with a different name, admittedly less restrictive but with many of the same problems," said Mustafa Qadri, the organization's Gulf migrant rights researcher. Contract arrangements and the ability to leave the country for workers under the proposed changes would "still be a situation of forced labor because the employer still has the power over the employee," he added.
Hassan al-Thawadi, who is heading Qatar's World Cup projects, said on Monday that no laborers working on the stadium projects had died from on-site accident or injury. "We have had about 4.8 million working hours. We've got about just over 2,500 workers and about five stadiums — we are at the early stages of construction," he said, according to AFP. "The World Cup stadium projects that we are responsible for, there have been no fatalities and no major injuries as well."
Meanwhile, Indonesia said it would ban its citizens from becoming domestic workers in the Middle East. The ruling applies to 21 countries and comes after the execution of two Indonesian nationals in Saudi Arabia last month. The wealthy Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are host to large numbers of Indonesian maids, and Jakarta has often voiced anger over their treatment there.
"The situation concerning our migrant workers, who were working as domestic helpers, has led to many problems such as those related to labor norms and human rights violation," Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri said Monday, according to remarks run by the state-owned Antara news agency. He referred to the execution of Indonesian domestic workers Siti Zainab and Karni binti Medi Tarsim, who were both beheaded for murder in April. In Saudi Arabia, offences including apostasy, rape, drug trafficking and murder are all punishable by death.
The killings enraged Indonesian officials, although Jakarta has itself not been averse to executing foreign citizens, last week shooting seven foreigners convicted of drug crimes despite massive international condemnation.
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