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After reforming World Cup host Qatar, union targets other Gulf states

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), speaks during an interview with AFP in Qatar's capital Doha on October 5
— Doha (AFP)

The head of the international union that forced Qatar into groundbreaking labour reforms ahead of the upcoming football World Cup vowed Wednesday that other Gulf states will become the next target.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (IUTC) chief said Qatar has made "incredible progress" in its treatment of foreign workers to become a country fit to host World Cup.

The football tournament starts on November 20.

Qatar has agreed to increase its minimum wage and tougher labour inspections during the World Cup, ITUC said in a statement.

Qatar, which expects more than one million visitors during the first World Cup in an Arab state, has faced heavy criticism over rights issues concerning foreign workers, women and the LGBTQ community.

The death toll on construction sites, punishing hours, grim living conditions and workers deported for protesting unpaid wages have caused controversy.

Burrow, whose group claims to represent 200 million workers worldwide, said the changes were hard fought.

But she was convinced they would last well beyond the football final on December 18, and that neighbouring states should take note "because now they are our target".

- 'Enemies' to 'friends' -

Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar's capital Doha

Burrow said a legal union in Kuwait needs "reform" and labour groups in Bahrain need "much more freedom".

"There's still a level of government oppression in Saudi Arabia," she told AFP in an interview.

"They've gone half the distance. They do have an impressive labour court, but the freedoms are not there yet that we'd like to see."

Burrow told of an atmosphere in which Qatari ministers at first refused to talk, but that the two sides had gone from "worst enemies" to "valuable friends".

"We said in 2015 there should be no World Cup without workers' rights," Burrow told AFP.

"I can honestly say now that my advice to fans is go to the World Cup, have fun."

Fans must do their own "due diligence", added Burrow, who will step down as the confederation leader next month.

"It's going to be a great environment but keep your eyes open. There will be human rights monitors. And if you see issues of exploitation or concern, report them."

While Qatar still has to make progress on implementing new laws, Burrow said claims that more than 6,000 workers had died on construction sites in the decade after the state was awarded the tournament were "a myth".

She said there had been a large number of unaccounted deaths before the reforms.

"If you walked around this city in 2012 or 2013, and you saw no scaffolding, no harnesses, no protective equipment, then it was obvious that injuries and deaths were going to be massive," said Burrow.

But since ITUC launched an International Labour Organisation complaint against Qatar in 2016, there had been a reversal with reform laws, improved salaries and living conditions, she said.

Burrow hailed Qatar's law regulating working in extreme heat as one of the best in the world.

Qatar had been a major battleground in the ITUC's campaign against "modern slavery", but Burrow said Doha had performed a "10-year turnaround".

After a meeting with government officials, ITUC said Qatar had agreed to review the $250 a month minimum wage -- on top of food and accommodation -- in coming months. It was the first Gulf country to introduce a minimum wage.

Qatar has also agreed to increased labour inspections for hotels and conditions for security guards during the World Cup, the ITUC said.

The government also agreed to boost protections for domestic workers, who rights groups say are at risk of physical and sexual abuse.

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