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DOHA, Qatar – Qatar's inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was "a mistake" the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the country's top labor official said Monday, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Abdullah Saleh Mubarak al-Khulaifi also expressed hope that a new payment system will address frequent complaints about late or nonexistent paychecks. But he was unable to say how soon proposed labor reforms floated last year to an employee sponsorship and exit visa system would come into play.
Tiny but energy-rich Qatar has faced intense scrutiny over its treatment of the low-paid guest workers building skyscrapers, stadiums, highways and other projects ahead of the games.
Conversations with guest workers crowded into bare-bones labor accommodations suggest many still are mistreated.
Several interviewed by the AP on a government-organized trip spoke of paying hefty recruitment fees that are illegal under Qatari law. Some said they were duped into taking jobs at salaries well below what they were promised.
Workers in some cases were housed in fetid, poorly ventilated rooms crammed with as many as 10 bunks, their clothes and cooking pans wedged underneath their beds.
Al-Khulaifi said the government recognizes that housing conditions for migrant laborers are a "major problem."
"Our delay nationally of accommodating properly such a population I think (was) a mistake that we are trying to remedy now," he said. "Current substandard labor accommodations are unacceptable."
Officials nearly have doubled the number of labor inspectors from 150 less than two years ago to 294 now, al-Khulaifi said, and they aim to hire about 100 more. He said it was "an ongoing, continuous project to upgrade our inspectors" with additional training while bolstering their ranks.
A new "wage protection system" aims to tighten oversight of salary payments by requiring money to be transferred directly to workers' accounts. Al-Khulaifi said companies would need to comply with that by mid-August.
Workers also are busy building additional dormitories designed according to new guidelines, housing newcomers and those being relocated from poorer accommodations.
One new complex known as Labor City that was shown to visiting journalists is designed to house 70,000 workers. The government-backed project includes a cricket pitch, mall, cinema and what builders say is the second-largest mosque in Doha.
At another new labor camp, Barwa al-Baraha, workers sleep four to a room and eat at a cafeteria that on a visit this week was serving meals of Indian-style lentils, mutton and rice.
Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, welcomed improvements to workers' housing but said deeper structural reforms were needed to give workers "a basic standard of dignity."
"This is a system that allows employers to exert almost complete control over their workers," he said. "The Qataris are tinkering around the edges."
These new complexes, while basic and reminiscent of military barracks, were a clear improvement over cramped private dormitories in Doha's industrial area.
Nischal Tamang, 22, from Nepal, said the air conditioner in the unventilated room he shares with nine others in one of those buildings has not worked for three days. He said he agreed to pay a recruiter back home the equivalent of $935 to help him secure a job as a driver earning 1,100 Qatari riyals ($300) a month, but when he arrived a month ago he was told he would have to work as a common laborer instead.
At another overcrowded building, recently arrived Ghanaian worker Dacosta Kufi Antwi, 26, squeezed into a tiny room with seven others. He also reported agreeing to pay a recruiter back home for the right to work in Qatar, arriving only to find he would earn just 900 riyals ($250) a month, not an expected $900.
Al-Khulaifi said Qatari officials monitor staffing companies at home and are working with other countries to crack down on recruiting fees, illegal under Qatari law.
Pressure is mounting on Qatar and other Gulf states over labor issues.
In March, FIFA President Sepp Blatter told Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, that his country needed to do more to improve guest workers' lives.
A French prosecutor last month launched an investigation into allegations that construction company Vinci seriously mistreated migrant workers in Qatar. The company's QDVC division has contracts worth 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) in Qatar, including work on the new Doha subway.
The prosecutor's office began the probe after the activist group Sherpa filed a legal complaint accusing the firm of driving workers into forced labor and bondage. Vinci has denied the allegations, which Sherpa claims amount to "modern slavery."
New York University, which has set up a satellite campus in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, in April announced along with its government partner that it would compensate workers whose sub-contracted employers failed to abide by the project's labor guidelines.
That decision came after media reports documented abuse allegations on the project. An independent report found about a third of the workforce fell outside labor and compliance standards set by the university.
Qatar repeatedly has said it is committed to making improvements — a theme al-Khulaifi reiterated Monday.
"We've been given an advantage with this international attention, with the hosting of the World Cup, to improve, to be catalysts for change in the whole area," he said.
A year ago, Qatar announced plans for labor reforms that could eventually end the controversial "kafala" system that ties migrant workers to a sponsoring employer. Rights groups have repeatedly urged Qatar to scrap the system, saying it encourages exploitation and abuse.
The new legislation also would allow workers to get permission to leave the country without going through their employer, as is the case now, and make it easier to change jobs once their contracts end.
The proposed changes are still being considered by the Shura council, a consultative body. Al-Khulaifi said he expected the measures eventually would become law.
"I wouldn't be fair to you or to myself to say an exact date because it's not in my hands," he said. Asked whether the legislation would be in place by year's end, he replied: "I hope so. I hope even earlier."
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck .