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DOHA: New York-based Human Rights Watch has urged Qatar to announce a timeframe by which it hopes to remove the sponsorship and exit permit system.
The rights watchdog said Qatar should follow international standards in safeguarding the rights of foreign workers as it prepares to host the coveted 2022 FIFA event. Senior officials from Human Rights Watch told reporters: “All we ask the Qatari authorities is to announce a timeframe to do away with sponsorship and exit permit rules”.
“We know it’s not easy to do away with a system that involves over a million migrant workers. It’s not easy to change the system overnight. But there should be a timetable for discontinuing the sponsorship law, and we want to see it as soon as practically possible,” said Jan Egeland, Europe Director and deputy executive director of Human Rights watch.
“The World Cup presents Qatar with an unprecedented opportunity to take the lead on the issue of migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf region, and to leave a positive and lasting legacy,” he added.
Egeland and his colleagues were addressing a news conference where they released the World Report 2013 of Human Rights Watch which also has a chapter on Qatar.
The rights watchdog, in their recommendations, has also urged Qatar to take practical steps to ensure migrant workers do not pay exorbitant and illegal recruitment fees, and prohibit companies from doing business with recruitment agencies and subcontractors, here as well as abroad.
That imposes illegal charges on workers, the officials said, and urged Qatar to enforce prohibitions against confiscation of workers’ passports by their employers; and impose meaningful sanctions on companies and individuals who violate laws designed to protect migrant workers’ rights.
In a new initiative, Human Rights Watch said they also plan to conduct a comprehensive study on housemaids, although they said they saw it as a very difficult task.
“The most vulnerable group we have is the small girl or woman working in a home somewhere and nobody is really able to control her working conditions,” said Egeland.
“Domestic workers too should get rights as any other worker. All countries which send domestic workers should demand a minimum wage and one day leave in a week,” he added.
The Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022 has acknowledged the problems of the sponsorship law and agreed to make changes. Representative of the HRW also have had discussions with the officials at the Foreign Ministry and National Human Rights Committee last year.
“Human Rights Watch had open and progressive discussions with the Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022, and we have been encouraged by their recognition of the problem and their commitment to reform,” said Nicholas McGeehan, Middle East consultant at Human Rights Watch.
“At the same time, we are disappointed by the lack of reforms in key areas. In June last year, Human Rights Watch issued a report containing an extensive series of workers’ interviews and we have highlighted migrant workers’ problems. They are highly vulnerable to systematic exploitation in Qatar,” he added.
McGeehan and his team have had discussions with the National Human Rights Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year. They have also spoken to 76 workers at labour camps in the Industrial Area during several weeks.
Migrant workers reported extensive labour law violations. Common complaints included late or unpaid wages. Some lived in over crowded and unsanitary labour camps, which lacked access to potable water, were not properly ventilated and were not furnished with functioning air-conditioning units. These are crucial elements of adequately minimising the risk of heat stroke in a country where daytime temperatures can reach over 45 degrees Celsius. “You cannot hope to run a 21st century tournament with a 19th century human rights (situation),” said McGeehan.
“We’ve seen the beginning of political will but we need it to be more now. The problem is a serious one but not particularly complicated one. We need the good laws to be enforced, we need the bad laws to be changed and we need violators to be sanctioned,” he added.
Asked if they took permission from the Qatari authorities to hold a media conference, McGeehan told this newspaper later that “whenever they come here they inform Qatar’s foreign ministry” and this time was no different.
“Whatever we do we do it publicly,” he said. “We have never been prohibited in Qatar. We have had no problems,” added McGeehan.