DOHA, Qatar -- The government of Qatar, the Gulf nation that will host the 2022 World Cup, has announced that it is introducing a draft law that could eventually end a controversial employee sponsorship system that ties expatriate workers to a single employer.
The move comes amid increased scrutiny over labour rights in the OPEC nation. Human rights advocates have urged Qatar to scrap the sponsorship system, saying it leaves workers open to exploitation and abuse.
Qatari officials announced the proposed change at a news conference in the capital, Doha, which was called to outline plans for a wider labour reform plan.
Expatriates make up the bulk of the workforce in Qatar. Their employment and legal residency in the country is typically dependent on sponsorship by a particular employer, who must also consent to employees' desire to leave the country or to change jobs.
Similar sponsorship systems are in place across the oil-rich Gulf Arab states, which rely heavily on Asian and other migrant workers. Not all require expatriates to get exit clearance before leaving as Qatar does, but allegations of employers illegally withholding low-wage workers' passports are common throughout the region.
Under the new proposal, workers in Qatar would automatically receive exit permission from the Interior Ministry 72 hours before their scheduled departure. The current system requiring workers to get their company's consent before changing employers would be replaced by employment contracts, though there would still be limits on how soon they could leave, according to a document outlining the proposed changes.
The new measures, which have the backing of the Cabinet, must still be approved by the Shura council, a consultative body, and other entities.
Amnesty International called some of the proposed reforms positive but said they fall short of "fundamental changes needed to address systemic abuses" of migrant workers.
"The proposals appear to be a missed opportunity. The government claims it is abolishing the sponsorship system, but this sounds like a change of name rather than substantive reform," said James Lynch, the group's researcher on migrant rights in the Gulf.
He noted that proposed changes to the exit permit system remain unclear and leave open the possibility that employers will still be able to object to workers leaving the country.
"Rather than re-jigging and renaming the sponsorship system, the government should commit now to genuine deep-rooted reform," he said in a statement.
Officials gave no time-frame for when the new policies might be implemented.
Brig. Mohammed Ahmed al-Atiq, the assistant director of the Interior Ministry's directorate of border, passport and expatriate affairs, said all foreign workers would be covered by the new measures, including domestic servants and government employees.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter described the announcement as "a significant step in the right direction for sustainable change in the workers' welfare standards in Qatar."
He added: "We look forward to seeing the implementation of these concrete actions over the next months. We will continue our close cooperation with Qatari authorities as well as dialogue with all key stakeholders."