GENEVA (AP) — Qatar has been urged at the United Nations to abolish the sponsorship system tying migrant workers to employers.
Delegates at a U.N. Human Rights Council panel reviewing Qatar's record on Wednesday repeatedly raised concerns about exploitation of workers in construction and domestic households.
Several of 84 states speaking in the session linked Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup with the need to reform its laws.
"There are widespread reports of violations of the rights of migrant workers, especially in the context of preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup," the Ireland delegation said in a statement.
Recommendations, which are not binding, included scrapping exit visas which can prevent immigrant workers leaving, and giving legal protection against what Belgium said was "persistence of violence against women and girls."
Qatar's assistant foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, said there had been "some helpful recommendations from different countries."
"We recognize that there are certain issues and challenges we are facing about the migrant workers," the minister told The Associated Press after the three-hour meeting. "We think the World Cup is a catalyst for us to help us accelerate our performance."
Qatari authorities are preparing to announce some changes within weeks, after a review of their labor laws.
"We will come, I think, very soon within the current month with an overall work program," Sheik Mohammed said.
The minister opened the panel meeting outlining progress made enacting recommendations — including measures to combat human trafficking and protect women and children from domestic violence — since a previous four-yearly review in 2010.
The International Trade Union Confederation and rights groups have criticized Qatar for slow adoption of laws to protect non-Qatari nationals, and failure to enforce existing laws properly.
With the World Cup expected to kick off in November 2022, Qatar faces two further U.N. human rights reviews before matches start.
Spain led calls on Wednesday to "strike from the books" the "kafala" sponsorship system which gives employers veto power over workers leaving their job or going home.
The Netherlands called for Qatar to make adequate labor conditions "an important criterion for granting building contracts" and to blacklist contractors who violated rules.
The Qatari minister called for understanding of the emirate's issues handling an influx of foreign workers — comprising 85 percent of a resident population of around 2 million — during its rapid growth.
"There are some challenges with the current laws," Sheik Mohammed acknowledged. "In order to have partners in this development, we need the flow of ex-pat workers who are coming to work for us and helping us."
Still, many U.N. member states on Wednesday expressed concern for migrant domestic staff who will be required in Qatari households after the construction boom.
Belgium urged Qatar to assure women they could complain "without fear of reprisal or harassment" by their employers.
Spain noted that marital rape is not a crime in Qatar, and the Czech Republic recommended criminalizing all violence against women.
"We are encouraging them if there is any problem to report it and we have put the mechanisms in place," the Qatari minister told the AP. "This is a freedom which is granted by the government."
France led recommendations that Qatari women who married foreign men be allowed to pass on their nationality to their children.
Amid widespread requests to ensure freedom of expression and protest in Qatar, the United States recommended that the government release all prisoners of conscience including poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami. He is serving a 15-year jail term for writing verses judged offensive to the former Emir.
A report reviewing Qatar's progress will be adopted Friday, and is scheduled to be considered at a session of the 47-nation Human Rights Council in September.