Qatar announced Thursday that it was introducing labor law reforms to aimed at ensuring that thousands of migrant workers building venues for the 2022 World Cup are paid on time.
The news comes months after the U.N. urged the Gulf nation to amend its labor practices and only a few days before FIFA officials are expected in Doha to finalize the date for the world’s biggest soccer tournament, which workers rights groups and activists have demanded be denied to the country.
Under the reforms, which were approved by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, employers will be required to pay migrant workers their wages through direct bank transfers so as to ensure payment accountability. Furthermore, wages will be deposited either bi-weekly or monthly, depending on workers’ professions.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Arabian Studies found that 21 percent of migrant workers in Qatar "received their salary on time only sometimes, rarely, or never."
Non-payment of migrant workers, especially to those in the construction sector, has become a sensitive issue for Qatar. In November 2014, Amnesty International accused the government in Doha of not doing enough to rectify the problem of non-payment.
A lack of progress on the issue was highlighted in January by HRW, which said in itsWorld Report (PDF) "many migrant workers complain that their employers fail to pay their wages on time, if at all."
"The scale of abuse in Qatar as it builds a dozen 2022 World Cup stadiums and $200 billion worth of infrastructure is immense: already, hundreds of South Asian migrant workers who toiled in the heat and dust of a highly abusive construction sector have been sent home in body bags, with authorities ignoring calls for investigations into their deaths," HRW said in its report.
It is not yet clear when the labor reforms will take effect, but employers will have six months to comply. If they do not, responsible parties could face up to one month in prison and a fine of about $1,650.
Rights groups on Thursday responded to news of the reforms with tempered optimism.
"It is a positive step as long as it is properly enforced," Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Nicholas McGeehan told Agence France-Presse, adding that the reforms would affect workers beyond the construction sector.
Amnesty International's Mustafa Qadri described the reforms as "a welcome development," but urged Qatar to make sure they are properly implemented and expanded.
"These should be seen as the beginning of the reforms, not the end," Qadri said.
There was some disappointment, however, that the reforms did not address Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system — which requires all foreign workers to be sponsored by employers. This system allows employers to prevent their foreign employees from leaving the country or changing jobs.
"That's a concern," said McGeehan. "Why is this area changing first? Are they working around the edges and avoiding the core problem?"
Rights groups are also concerned with a number of other employer practices — including the confiscation of migrant workers’ passports and forcing them to payback exorbitant recruitment fees that essentially keep from being able to leave their jobs.
Qadri said there was a concern that Qatar was neglecting these practices and "may just focus on easier issues."
On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated, citing "multiple sources" reported it was a "done deal" that the 2022 World Cup would be hosted by Qatar in November and December of that year. Qatar is seeking to become a global leader in sporting events. It hosted the handball World Cup last month and is expected to bid for the Summer Olympics.
Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse