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UN Reports Progress on Labor Reforms in Qatar

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, left, takes a tour of migrant workers' accommodations in Labor City, Qatar, Jan. 13, 2016.

Qatar has made progress in its efforts to improve the lives of migrant laborers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said Thursday, departing from previous U.N. criticism of the wealthy nation's treatment of workers.

Rights groups accuse Qatar of having abusive labor laws and forcing some workers to live in squalor and work under poor safety conditions.

Unions and labor protests are banned in the country, and authorities penalize dissent with jail terms or immediate deportation.

"From what we have seen, there is progress. We are convinced there is genuine will to tackle rights violations," Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein told reporters in Doha after a two-day visit to the tiny state, which draws its vast wealth mainly from liquefied natural gas exports.

Qatar hosts 1.6 million foreign workers from countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh. They outnumber the local workforce by nearly 20-to-1.

In 2014, the U.N. called on Qatar to abolish its "kafala" or sponsorship system, which forces foreign workers to seek their employers' consent to change jobs or leave the country.

The system is used in various forms across the Gulf Arab region, and rights groups say it contributes to widespread labor abuse. Qatar has not yet abolished the law, but Hussein said efforts were underway.

"Through the development of legislation ... Qatar is working to replace kafala," he said, adding that Qatar needed to give a timeframe for implementation of further reforms.

Qatar says it has made progress: A wage protection system requiring companies to pay salaried workers by electronic bank transfer came into force in November.

During his visit, the U.N. envoy spoke with construction workers while on a tour of a new worker accommodation camp built on the outskirts of Doha by the government to host 100,000 foreign workers.

Protests or strikes by workers are extremely rare, but in November, police were called to break up a work stoppage after several hundred laborers at a major building site in downtown Doha went on strike, complaining about unpaid wages.