Rights groups on Wednesday dismissed as a "sham" long-awaited reforms of Qatar's much-criticised "kafala" labour system for foreign workers, which critics have likened to modern-day slavery.
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on Tuesday approved a new law overseeing the sponsorship system — which currently only allows workers to leave the country with the approval of their employer — as well as rules which allow workers to switch jobs.
But activists said the changes were unlikely to make any real difference for the thousands of foreign workers in the gas-rich Gulf state, many of whom are preparing facilities for Qatar's hosting of football's 2022 World Cup.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, one of Qatar's fiercest critics, said the latest changes were little more than "sham reforms".
"The new labour law does not abolish the notorious exit permits, and workers still have to get their employers' permission to leave the country," she said.
The new rules will allow foreign workers wishing to leave Qatar to apply for permission at least 72 hours beforehand to the interior ministry.
If this permission is initially denied, employees seeking to leave the country can complain to a grievance committee, which will be established under the new law.
The changes also allow foreign workers to switch jobs at the end of a fixed-term contract.
Under the current system, workers who leave a job at the end of a contract have to wait two years to return to Qatar to take up a new position, if the employer objects to the new job.
"These changes are unlikely to lead to a meaningful improvement," Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
"One of the most disappointing aspects of the law is the fact that workers will still apparently need employer permission to leave the country," he said.
Exiting the country and changing work contracts had proved the trickiest areas to change and were the subject of fierce debate within Qatar, with the country's main advisory body, the Shura Council, questioning reforms earlier this summer.
It was not clear exactly when the changes would take effect, but it was unlikely to be before 2017 at the earliest.
Qatar has faced fierce criticism from rights groups for its slow pace of reform, even though the country announced earlier this year that it was committed to change the "kafala" system by the end of 2015.
The system applies to some 1.8 million foreign workers, who make up about 90 per cent of the population in the tiny Gulf state.
The number of foreign workers, many of them labourers on major infrastructure projects directly or indirectly related to the World Cup, is expected to reach 2.5 million by 2020.
The "kafala" sponsorship system has faced strong criticism since a spotlight was shone on Qatar after it surprisingly won the right to host football's biggest tournament in 2010.
The announcement of the latest reforms came ahead of another major change early next month when Doha introduces the "Wage Protection System".
It will ensure migrant workers get paid on time, with wages electronically transferred to bank accounts.