Qatar Thursday promised pay guarantees and better conditions for migrant workers building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup as it hosted a Labour Day conference to address growing international concern.
Leading critic Amnesty International, which attended the conference, welcomed Qatar's openness in addressing the issue but called for it go much further and reform the whole system of restrictions it imposes on expatriates who make up 93 percent of the workforce.
The conservative Gulf states have traditionally tolerated no May Day commemorations, but the Qatari Football Association said that Thursday's conference had been timed to coincide with "Labour Day".
Labour and Social Affairs Minister Abdullah al-Khulaifi told the conference that Qatar was taking steps to enforce prompt payment for all workers, as well as building better accommodation and boosting the number of safety inspectors at construction sites.
"Our (Islamic) religion has ordered us to treat workers in a humane way, and not to task them with unbearable jobs... most importantly, to pay them," Khulaifi said.
The government approved a recommendation Wednesday to make the electronic transfer of wages mandatory.
"We hope that the wage protection system will achieve its aims," Khulaifi said.
He said the government planned to build two new "labour cities" in Doha's industrial zone with a capacity to house 100,000 workers.
Five other compounds were being built elsewhere in the emirate to accommodate 120,000 workers, he said.
Additional safety inspectors had also been recruited, as well as interpreters with a command of the Asian languages that are the mother tongues of most of the migrant workforce.
Amnesty's head of global issues, Audrey Gaughran, urged Qatar to go further and reform the sponsorship system, under which a foreign worker cannot return home without an exit permit from his Qatari sponsor, among other restrictions.
- 'Appalling conditions' -
"Exit permit is a flagrant breach of human rights," she told the forum, insisting that it should not be left in the hands of a private employer.
Gaughran said she met on Wednesday with 10 Nepalese migrant workers who were living in "appalling conditions" after their Qatari sponsor disappeared along with their passports.
"They live on handouts," unable to return home even though they bought their travel tickets, she said.
Amnesty had said previously that the tens of thousands of migrant workers building the multi-billion-dollar World Cup infrastructure were being treated like "animals", with hundreds dying on the construction sites.
The International Trade Union Confederation has warned that at current rates, as many as 4,000 people might die by the time the tournament kicks off in eight years' time.
The International Labour Organisation called on Qatar earlier this month to remove a host of restrictions on migrant workers forming trade unions or striking.
Qatar said Thursday it has received a report it had commissioned international law firm DLA Piper to prepare on workers' conditions.
It said authorities will "thoroughly" review the findings and study the feasibility and sustainability of the recommendations.
"The welfare of workers in the State of Qatar is a matter of utmost importance," it said, promising to respond to the recommendations and release the report to the public after reviewing it.
The 2022 World Cup has been plagued by controversy ever since it was awarded to the tiny Gulf state.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter has called for the tournament to be played during the northern hemisphere's winter rather than in the searing heat of a Gulf summer.
But he has met fierce resistance from the big European leagues.
A decision will not be taken until 2015.