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World Cup host Qatar agrees some foreign worker reforms

DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar's government has approved some measures to improve the treatment of foreign workers following international criticism over the past year, as the Gulf state gears up to host the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament.

The steps were announced by minister of labor and social affairs Abdullah Saleh Mubarak al-Khulaifi on Sunday. They include a requirement that companies set up bank accounts for workers and pay wages electronically and a ban on mid-day outdoor work in the summer heat.

However the government is still working on plans to replace a contentious sponsorship law in the Arab country of 2.2 million people.

"We know there is much more to do, but we are making definite progress," al-Khulaifi said in a statement.

Pressure on Doha grew after Britain's Guardian newspaper reported in September that dozens of Nepali construction workers had died and that laborers were not given enough food and water. Qatari and Nepali officials denied the report.

Qatar has the highest proportion of migrant workers per population in the world. The OPEC member's population jumped 9 percent in the first quarter as companies hired thousands of laborers to work on World Cup-related infrastructure projects.

Among the measures, companies will have to pay wages within seven days of the due date or else face a sanction. The government did not say what that penalty would be. Outdoor work between 11:30 am and 3:00 pm in the hot summer months from mid-June until the end of August is also banned.

The government has also agreed to launch an electronic complaint system and is building accommodation to accommodate up to 150,000 workers.

It was not clear from the statement when the government adopted the measures and when they will be implemented.

In May, the state proposed reforms to the sponsorship law, known as "kafala", in which workers need their employer's permission to change jobs.

"The reforms announced in May will replace the kafala system with a modern contract between worker and employer," Khulaifi said without mentioning a timeline.

"However, the direction we are taking is firmly set and every effort is being made to put in place the reforms as quickly as possible – as these most recent measures show," he said.

The ministry is also working to address labor abuse prior to workers' arrival in Qatar, he said, and wants to limit the use of agents that recruit them.

"The decision of the Nepali Embassy in Qatar to ban 55 Nepali recruitment companies found to have been exploiting migrant workers, shows how important effective action from all parties can be," Khulaifi said.

(Reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Martin Dokoupil and Erica Billingham)

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