European parliament MP says Qatar to improve labour laws

DOHA, March 26(Reuters) - Qatar has promised to improve its labour laws, a member of the European parliament visiting the Gulf Arab state said, after persistent criticism from human rights group over its treatment of workers. Pressure on Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup, grew after Britain's Guardian newspaper reported in September that dozens of Nepali construction workers had died and that labourers were not given enough food and water. Qatari and Nepali officials denied the report. Richard Howitt, a member of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights who visited Doha this week as part of efforts to help Qatar reform its labour laws, said Qatari officials were working on new legislation to improve conditions for foreign workers in the Gulf Arab state. "It's been a very constructive visit," Howitt, a Briton, told Reuters on Tuesday. "I met with officials who said that we should be hearing about new announcements which include laws to protect domestic workers by this summer... Change is imminent," he added, referring to house maids and cleaners, who are usually foreign. He did not give any more details. Officials from the Qatari Labour Ministry were not available on Wednesday for a comment. Summer in the Middle East falls between June and September. The European Parliament subcommittee on human rights, which is looking into the issue of sports and human rights, last month decided to help Qatar introduce labour reforms after a hearing with several witnesses including human rights groups and the UN's International Labour Organization. Howitt said he had also urged Qatari officials to abolish the "kafala" or "sponsorship" system that allows sponsors to hold guest workers' passports for the duration of their contracts. He said the Qatari's said they were planning to introduce some changes into this system but gave no specific time frame. Qatari officials were reluctant to allow the formation of labour unions, he said, because they viewed the issue as "not compatible with national security". Faced with the challenge of completing big construction and infrastructure projects before the World Cup, Qatar has an increasing number of its estimated 1.8 million foreigners working on projects related to soccer's showcase event. Howitt also said executives from European construction companies he met in Qatar admitted to having laxer workers' welfare standards there compared with their operations in Europe. "Some European companies confessed that they apply lower standards in Qatar compared to what they do in Europe," he said. "European companies and the private sector have to take the lead in providing better conditions for workers, and this is something that I had discussed with them." Last month, Qatar's 2022 World Cup organizers said they will penalise contractors who violate the welfare of construction workers after the Gulf country was widely criticized over its labour rights record. But the measures, which included detailed standards unveiled by the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, did not deal with the sponsorship system for migrant workers that a U.N. official said in November was a source of labour abuse. (Reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Hugh Lawson)