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Heat’s off Qatar World Cup workers after reforms

Qatar introduced several reforms aimed at its migrant workforce on Sunday, following international criticism of conditions at its construction sites for the 2022 World Cup.

The Middle Eastern country's multi-billion dollar construction program for the FIFA soccer tournament—which has inflated its already large migrant-worker population —has raised alarm among human rights activists about the high number of deaths on its building sites.

As many as 1,200 workers have died in Qatar since it was awarded the World Cup, according to a report from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in March. It cited the strain of performing heavy work in sweltering heat, as well as squalid and crowded living conditions, with many workers without running water or sanitation.

Nadine Rupp | Getty Images

Allegations about workers' treatment in Qatar also include forced labor, confiscation of passports and lack of right to form trade unions. Qatar has one of the highest migrant worker populations in the world, with over 90 percent of the population heralding from outside the country. They primarily come from South Asia, especially Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The country hosts many domestic, as well as construction workers.

In response to the concerns, the country's ministry of labor and social affairs introduced a range of reforms on Sunday, including a ban on working outside between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the summer months, when temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius. Employers will also be required to pay workers electronically, within seven days of the due date.

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Living conditions for workers housed by companies must also improve, with employers now required to increase the space allocated per worker to six square meters from four square meters.

"We welcome the recent scrutiny, as it helps us identify shortcomings and drive our wider progress," said Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Abdullah Saleh Mubarak Al-Khulaifi in a news release on Sunday.

"We know there is much more to do, but we are making definite progress."

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As the number of fatalities and worldwide criticism of the stadium staff's living and working conditions increased, FIFA President Joseph Blatter and the president of the ITUC, Michael Sommer, met in November and agreed that fair working conditions must be introduced promptly in Qatar.

Demonstrators outside FIFA's headquarters in Zurich after a newspaper report said Nepalese construction workers treated like "slaves" have died working on World Cup projects in Qatar.
Fabric Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images
Demonstrators outside FIFA's headquarters in Zurich after a newspaper report said Nepalese construction workers treated like "slaves" have died working on World Cup projects in Qatar.

This Sunday, Qatar also announced an increase in the number of safety inspectors and inspections of working and living conditions. In addition, an electronic complaint system for migrant workers in English, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Nepali will be introduced.

However, Qatar is yet to eliminate its contentious kafala sponsorship law system, in which workers need their employer's permission to change jobs or leave the country.

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Human rights lobbying group Amnesty International said more needed to be done to address the abuse of workers.

"There are tentative signs of efforts to improve enforcement of worker protections—the number of labor inspectors continues to creep up and better language facilities have been installed in Ministry of Labor complaints offices, for example. But some of the measures announced are in fact just planned pieces of legislation which have not yet taken force, let alone had an effect on the ground," James Lynch, a researcher on expatriate workers in the Gulf region, told CNBC on Monday.

The country's World Cup bid has proved doubly contentious because it is also under investigation for corruption, following a series of articles in The Sunday Times. The U.K. newspaper alleges that a representative acting on behalf of Qatar bribed key officials to secure their vote for the country to host the tournament. FIFA has launched an internal investigation into the allegations, but officials in the Gulf state maintain they won the vote fairly.

—By CNBC's Katy Barnato

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