Qatar's kefala system was widely criticised by human rights NGOs after several foreign workers died on construction sites in the country.
NGOs have often called Qatar's human rights record into question when it comes to the country's two million migrant workers.
But a recent Amnesty International report said the Gulf state's government had committed to align its labour laws with international labour standards and change its ill-famed sponsorship system, known as the kefala system.
The kefala system was widely criticised by human rights NGOs because it tied each individual worker to a specific employer.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called out the “systemic abuses” workers suffered, including the non-payment of wages, passport confiscation, and the limited ability to change jobs.
On Wednesday, Dr Ali bin Smaikh Al Marri, chairman of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, met with Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights to speak about various human rights issues in the country.
In an exclusive interview with Euronews, Al Marri talked about the changes made to the laws concerning migrant workers, how a new law allegedly protects domestic workers, and the status of women rights in Qatar.
Euronews: What is the situation with migrant workers in Qatar (especially those working to make the stadiums for the next World Cup)?
Al Marri: "There have been significant developments with regard to the situation of immigrant workers in Qatar, including the issuing of a domestic workers' law, the law abolishing the exit permit and the law setting up a support fund for migrant workers.
"Furthermore, the wage protection law was issued and is subject to constant amendments whenever new companies are established and regulated by the electronic wage system.
"The state launched recruitment offices in labour-exporting countries to ensure ethical and responsible recruitment of migrant workers.
"A committee was established to combat human trafficking and to monitor the implementation of the law against trafficking in human beings.
"To develop access to remedies and justice, the Committee for the Settlement of Labour Disputes was established with the competence of binding arbitration of the two parties.
"With regard to workers in World Cup facilities, in particular, they operate according to standard criteria set out by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, in compliance with the ILO standards.
"The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federation of Building and Wood Workers (IFBWW) working under the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in order to involve a third party in assessing the situation of workers.
"We also have an ILO office in Qatar that supports the implementation of a strategy to protect and promote workers' rights."
Is the kafala system still in place?
"After issuing all the relevant laws and amendments, we confirm that the sponsorship law has been abolished. The current law replaced the sponsorship system with a contract-based system in which a worker can move to a new job after the expiration of his contract.
"Various lessons were learned following the application of the contract system and the challenges faced by the parties hiring workers are coming to light, including, for example, some overlapping jurisdictions between different actors that may sometimes affect the smooth transition from one job to another. We made our recommendations to the government."
What do you make of reports citing the deaths of migrants workers in the construction fields of World Cup stadiums?
"Death of migrant workers in the construction fields is unfortunate, but this happens because of the nature of construction work. This happens daily in all countries of the world and under the best standards for health and safety. Qatar only needs to be more transparent on this subject and to announce the results of the investigation into any incident without delay. These were our recommendations to the state."
Is there now a law protecting domestic workers?
"Yes, this is a question that we approach today with Michelle Bachelet. The new law specifically sets out working hours, weekly rest days, end of service benefits and annual leave, as with all workers and employees. However, we recommend that the state establish a monitoring mechanism for the effective implementation of the law."
Will women's rights in Qatar improve in the future?
"Four women have been appointed to the advisory (Shura) Council for the first time. This is a very positive step, and it bears the message that the status of women will be constantly evolving.
"The State of Qatar has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and International Covenants with the force of national laws in accordance with the Constitution. We made recommendations to the government, most importantly, to grant women the right to transfer their nationality to their children."
Any developments on the law concerning political asylum?
"The law has already been passed and is considered one of the first laws to protect refugees in the Arab region."
How much has really changed?
Euronews also spoke with Ahmed Benchemsi, the MENA communications director at HRW who said that even though Qatar pledged to replace the kefala system with a system of government-issued visas a year ago, little had been done to dismantle the old system.
“They have taken steps but those steps are taking a lot of time,” he said, adding that HRW was concerned they weren’t moving fast enough.
“We called on the government to give a timetable on the implementation of the reforms yet they haven’t given a time plan on when they will dismantle the kefala system.”
Benchemsi also expressed concern about the new law on migrant workers’ rights, because “it excluded some migrants from the lifting of the exit visa, including all those who work in the public sector and domestic workers and also migrant workers in the military."
Concerning domestic workers, HRW sees a problem with the new law because “it is weaker than the labour law for all other workers, so there’s obviously discrimination,” added Benchemsi.
“The new law gives a fine to employers who violate its provisions but there’s no enforcement mechanism and no provisions for inspection in the workplace.”
“The law also doesn’t say how domestic workers can claim their rights,” he added.
Benchemsi also highlighted some pending issues regarding women’s rights in Qatar, such as them not being able to pass on nationality to their children, unlike men.
He also called out Qatar for not “criminalising marital rape or domestic violence and making sex outside of marriage punishable by law”.