(Recasts and adds comments from Qatar government)
By Ed Upright
LONDON, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Qatar defended its labour law reforms on Monday after coming under attack from a human rights group that said the changes won't end the abuse and exploitation faced by migrant workers in the country - and may even make it worse.
The Qatari government said a new law coming into effect on Tuesday will replace the controversial "kafala" or sponsorship system that forces foreign workers to seek their employer's consent to change jobs or leave the country.
Rights groups say the kafala system has forced workers to live in squalor and toil under dangerous, sometimes fatal, conditions which amount to modern-day slavery.
Qatar is spending billions of dollars on infrastructure related to hosting the World Cup in 2022 and has imported hundreds of thousands of construction workers from countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh for building projects.
An Amnesty International report said the reforms won't lead to significant changes on the ground and workers will continue to need their employer's permission to change jobs and require exit permits to leave the oil-rich Gulf state.
"This new law may get rid of the word 'sponsorship' but it leaves the same basic system intact," James Lynch, deputy director for global issues at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
"FIFA [football's governing body that organises the World Cup] its sponsors and foreign governments seeking business ties with Qatar cannot and must not use this reform to claim that the problem of migrant labour abuse has been solved."
"FIT FOR PURPOSE"
A statement from the Qatar government rejected the Amnesty report and said it was continuing to review and adapt its laws to "ensure our approach to reform is fit for purpose".
"We remain committed to the development of a labour system that is fair to both employers and employees alike," the statement said.
"These new legislative changes, combined with ongoing enforcement and a commitment to systemic reform, not just in Qatar but also in countries of origin, will ensure workers' rights are respected across the entire labour pathway."
According to Amnesty, abusive employers can also withhold workers' passports under a new loophole - something that wasn't allowed under the previous laws.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that despite the new laws, "Qatar remains a slave state".
"This is just new labels on old laws. The exit permit system still remains a fact of life. This is just a relabelling of an extremely exploitative system," said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.
The Qatar government earlier on Monday said the reforms would make it easier for migrant workers to change jobs and leave the country, bringing "tangible benefits".
"The new law is the latest step towards improving and protecting the rights of every expatriate worker in Qatar," Labour Minister Issa al-Nuami said in a statement.
"We urge the international community not to draw any definitive conclusions until there has been time to see the new law in action."
Bangladeshi labour activists said on Friday they had joined a lawsuit in Switzerland against FIFA for allegedly failing to use its influence to ensure people working on World Cup facilities in Qatar are treated fairly.
The suit, filed in FIFA's home city of Zurich with the backing of the Netherlands' largest labour union, calls on FIFA to force Qatar to adopt "minimum labour standards" for migrant workers preparing for the tournament. (Reporting by Ed Upright; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)