Qatar is introduce a new labour panel to investigate employee grievances, as the country continues the gradual reform of its employment practices.

The move means that for the first time, labour disputes will be handled outside the court system, according to reports carried by The New Arab online news service.

Although the principle of the panel was agreed as part of a package of labour reforms announced last year, the Qatari government has now confirmed it will be operational by the end of March, with an International Labour Organisation (ILO) office expected to open in the country later this year.

The aim is to improve oversight of grievances, but it should also streamline the process of resolving labour disputes. The Law Gazette said the Department of Labour Relations would be responsible for referring cases to the panel, though cases involving dismissal could be filed directly. If a dismissal was found to be arbitrary, it said, an employee would return to their job with compensation. The entire process of resolving disputes should take no more than three weeks.

Qatar has embarked on a cautious programme of employment reforms, most notably promising to abolish the kafala system which requires employers to sponsor and monitor the legal status of employees, replacing it with a system of employment contracts.

In February, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said it was confident the “worst” aspects of the system would be removed in a matter of weeks, citing comments made by Qatari prime minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani.

ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow also welcomed the move to introduce the labour panel. "The new guidance from Qatar signals the start of real reforms in Qatar which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations on workers' rights," she said.

But the country still faces international condemnation for its working practices, with the scrutiny only increasing in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, which it is hosting.

Construction projects to support the event have been heavily scrutinised by NGOs and the media. This month, an audit conducted on behalf of football’s governing body, FIFA, interviewed more than 600 workers on construction sites in the country and concluded that working weeks in excess of 72 hours were commonplace, while some workers went up to five months without a break.

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