Qatar, host of the 2022 football World Cup, said Wednesday it will abolish its controversial sponsorship system for foreign workers, whose treatment in the energy-rich state has stirred mounting international criticism.
FIFA chief Sepp Blatter described the move as a "significant step," but Amnesty International said it lacked substance and amounted to a "missed opportunity".
The sponsorship system "will be replaced with a system based on employment contracts," as part of a package of labour reforms, said an interior ministry statement read out at a press conference in Doha.
Sponsorship systems for foreign workers exist in most Gulf countries, which employ millions of foreigners, especially from Asia.
The system has been strongly criticised by human rights groups as open to abuse and likened to modern-day slavery.
Bahrain abolished the system in 2009, but Kuwait dropped reported plans to follow suit in 2011.
The Qatari reforms, which need to be submitted to the emirate's consultative council and chamber of commerce and industry before being adopted, will also end the longstanding requirement that foreign workers obtain their employer's consent before leaving the country.
"The current exit permit system, which requires the employer's consent for an employee to leave the country, will now be replaced with an automated system through the ministry of interior," the statement said.
The new system will automatically grant an exit permit to an employee "after a 72-hour grace period prior to departure," it said.
The government will also raise the fine for employers who confiscate the passports of foreign workers to 50,000 rials ($13,580) from the current 10,000 rials, in a bid to stamp out the illegal but still common practice.
Foreign workers will be able to change job at the end of their contract, without the need for the certificate they currently require that their previous employer has no objection.
If the contract is open-ended, a foreign worker will be able to change jobs after five years.
"This announcement is a significant step in the right direction for sustainable change in the workers' welfare standards in Qatar," said Blatter, head of world football's governing body FIFA.
"We look forward to seeing the implementation of these concrete actions over the next months," said the FIFA president.
"We will continue our close cooperation with Qatari authorities as well as dialogue with all key stakeholders," he added.
Amnesty International, however, was less impressed, saying the proposed reforms "fall far short of the fundamental changes needed to address systemic abuses against migrant workers in the construction, domestic and other sectors."
"Based on today’s announcement, the proposals appear to be a missed opportunity," said Amnesty International's researcher James Lynch.
He said abolishing the sponsorship system, called "kafala" in Arabic, sounds like "a change of name rather than substantive reform."
"It remains unclear how proposed reforms to the exit permit will work in practice, and whether under the new proposal employers will retain the ability to object to workers leaving the country."
The Qatari government has commissioned independent law firm DLA Piper to prepare an in-depth report on the working and living conditions of blue-collar workers. It acknowledged receiving the report earlier this month but did not reveal its findings.
Human Rights Watch said the government's proposed reforms "did not make clear how they intend to deal with the report."
"The DLA Piper report confirms the serious problems Qatar is facing in its preparations to host the 2022 World Cup," the watchdog's Middle East researcher Nicholas McGeehan said.
"The ball is now back in Qatar’s court and it is up to them to act on the report’s findings and recommendations."
Officials gave no precise timeline for implementation of the reforms.
Qatar's treatment of its massive foreign workforce has been under the international spotlight as it launches a massive construction programme for the world football showcase.
Doha has rejected charges that construction workers are being mistreated while announcing a series of measures to improve workplace safety and workers' conditions.
The 2022 edition of the World Cup has been mired in controversy ever since it was awarded to the tiny Arab monarchy in the Gulf.