Report commissioned by Qatar government largely concurs with findings that workers are being subjected to serious exploitation.
This negative assessment of the system, which binds workers to one employer, carries all the more weight because it is the central finding of a report the Gulf state commissioned in response to international outrage over its treatment of migrant workers.
At a press conference in Doha on Wednesday, the authorities failed to clarify how they would respond to the report's recommendations. But the findings hopefully mark the beginning of the end for the ruinous kafala system and paves the way for other crucial reforms.
Qatar appointed DLA Piper, a leading international law firm, to examine claims of migrant worker abuses in its construction sector in October last year–just two weeks after the Guardian's reporting of the issue created a media storm that has not abated.
The report is largely consistent with the newspaper's findings, as well as investigations from Human Rights Watch in June 2012 and Amnesty International (pdf) in November–namely that workers, among them those building 2022 World Cup infrastructure, are being subjected to serious exploitation, including forced labour.
Among the many practical recommendations is one for Qatar to commission an independent study into migrant workers' deaths from cardiac arrest. The report is critical of what it sees as sensationalist reporting of such statistics, but acknowledges that exactly how many workers died or why is still not know and proposes steps to be taken to answer those questions.
Most important, DLA Piper's criticism of kafala–which has facilitated abuse and exploitation–is unequivocal, and warns the system can lead to conditions of forced labour. It recommends a wide-ranging and comprehensive review.
But the report falls short on two counts. It fails to recommend immediate abolition of Qatar's exit-visa system, which allows employers to arbitrarily prevent workers from leaving. It instead recommends that the system be phased out over time. The report also fails to take into account international law on the right to leave any country, which the exit-visa system clearly violates.
The interim measures proposed while the system is being phased out will not stop a situation like the one that led to the French footballer Zahir Belounis being trapped in the country for almost two years.
That incident, and the campaign to release him, did immense damage to Qatar's reputation. It is a measure of the country's resistance to structural reform that DLA Piper does not recommend abolishing the exit-visa system.
The report's "light-touch regulation" approach to the critical issue of enforcing labour standards is also disappointing. Laws and regulations only have an impact when they are supported by sanctions, which work as a deterrent.
But there is scant mention of strong enforcement mechanisms in the report. Is blacklisting really an appropriate penalty for Qatari recruitment agents who swindle migrant workers out of thousands of dollars, leaving them heavily indebted and vulnerable to forced labour? An electronic payment system will detect the non-payment of wages, but strong punishment for offenders is sorely lacking. So how will wage payment be enforced?
Nonetheless, the report leaves the Qatari government in no doubt as to the problems that exist and what it can and should do to fix them. It is to Qatar's credit that it has remained willing to engage on the issue, despite receiving unprecedented criticism. Last month, a delegation from Human Rights Watch visited Qatar and held talks with officials, including the prime minister.
Qatar's attitude stands in marked contrast to other countries in the region with equally odious records on this issue. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, for example, refuse to let rights groups into the country, let alone have talks with them.
During our meetings in Doha, quasi-governmental organisations such as the 2022 Supreme Committee and the Qatar Foundation said they recognised the importance of reform, and showed a desire to drive that process forward despite strong opposition from some who dismiss any criticism as a conspiracy to strip Qatar of the World Cup.
It is imperative that Qatar act on the report immediately. This month, a colleague and I visited a group of 12 Nepalese migrant workers living in squalor just 30 minutes' drive from Doha's five-star hotels. The men's employer has simply abandoned them, and they are surviving on food aid without any means to return home. They risk arrest every time they travel to the labour ministry to try (and fail) to file a complaint in a language they do not understand.
Qatar will be judged on how it treats these workers and others like them in the months and years to come. Despite its shortcomings, this report points the authorities in the right direction, but it is now up to Qatar to do what is needed.
Nicholas McGeehan is the Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow on Twitter @Ncgeehan