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Migrant worker abuse is widespread in Qatar – but the 2022 World Cup organisers seem to be taking the issue seriously. Will the new emir do the same?

The Guardian's findings that labourers in Qatar are falling victim to what it calls modern-day slavery are a depressing confirmation of the country's dismal treatment of migrant workers. In November 2010, when Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, it was clear that a failure to make basic reforms would result in the sort of brutal exploitation revealed in Pete Pattison's outstanding investigative report.

In June 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report on human rights abuses, including forced labour, in Qatar's construction sector. Earlier this year, we concluded that the country risks becoming "a crucible of exploitation and misery" for migrant workers after the authorities chose to ignore the detailed recommendations in that report. Other rights groups and trade unions have been similarly critical.

The bad news is that we are looking at a serious and entirely predictable problem that could get significantly worse. Estimates of Qatar's total population run from 1.7 to 2 million, and hundreds of thousands of migrant workers continue to pour in annually to meet the demands of its booming construction industry. One need spend only a few hours in the industrial area of Salwa, in the western outskirts of Doha, home to many of its migrant workers, to appreciate that Qatar is not prepared for this influx.

The good news is that this problem can be fixed. Qatar needs to enforce its good laws, such as prohibiting employers from confiscating passports and banning illegal recruitment fees. It should reform or abolish its bad laws, such as the notorious kafala system of sponsorship-based employment and an exit visa system that gives employers unchecked power to stop workers from leaving the country.

The cumulative effect of these mutually reinforcing mechanisms facilitates forced labour and leads to the dreadful living and working conditions we see in Qatar today. The country is wealthy enough to solve problems many times as complex, and in any case, the issue is less about money than about the impulse to control a non-citizen workforce that today constitutes 90% of the population.

The difficult part lies in convincing Qatari opponents of labour reform that it is necessary. The powerful business community is not alone in opposing more rights for migrant workers. A recent survey from Qatar University's social and economic survey research institute found that 88% of Qataris sampled did not want the kafala system reformed, and 30% wanted it strengthened.

Of equal concern is the responsible authorities' refusal to acknowledge the gravity of the problem. The ministry of labour told Human Rights Watch in 2012 that it was "inconceivable" that forced labour existed in Qatar, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

In this context, the positive response of Qatar's 2022 supreme committee to the Guardian's findings – its members said they were appalled in a statement – offers some hope. Hassan al-Thawadi, the committee's secretary general, has made repeated commitments to labour reform, but his powers and remit are limited. The supreme committee's plans to address the migrant worker problem by issuing a code of conduct for building work related to the World Cup won't address the overarching structural problems.

This issue requires bold leadership right from the top. Sheikh Tamim, Qatar's new emir, has much to gain from taking a strong line on labour rights and empowering Qatar's reformers to take the steps required to end forced labour in the country. You don't need a crystal ball to figure out what will happen if he doesn't.

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