LAHORE, Pakistan, September 1 (News Lens Pakistan) -- Authorities in Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, have reached an agreement with Qatar to train and send 200,000 laborers to the Gulf state to build stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup soccer tournament in 2022.
The agreement, announced in April, comes amid high-profile concerns raised by Amnesty International and corporate World Cup sponsors over conditions in Qatar for migrant workers.
A May Amnesty International report on migrant labor abuse said Qatar had made little progress on improving migrant workers' rights, despite promises to do so.
The human rights group said the Qatar government promised reforms in May 2014 to address widespread exploitation of migrant workers in the country, yet more than a year later none of the proposed reforms have been implemented.
Amnesty, in a May 21 briefing, rated Qatar's response to nine fundamental migrant labor rights issues that had been identified by the rights group a year earlier. Only limited progress had been achieved on five of the issues, Amnesty officials said.
Meanwhile, in four areas -- the exit permit, the restriction on changing employers in Qatar's kafala sponsorship system, protection of domestic workers and the freedom to form or join unions -- Qatari authorities have failed to make any improvements, Amnesty said.
Little had changed in law, policy and practice in the previous 12 months for Qatar's more than 1.5 million migrant workers in Qatar, Amnesty said.
Raja Ashfaq Sarwar, labor and human resources minister for the country's most populous province, Punjab, said two committees had been set up by the government to identify professional skills demanded by Qatar.
"These committees will provide identity cards, passport, visas, security clearance and vaccinations to the skilled and semi-skilled workers who will be going abroad," Sarwar told News Lens Pakistan.
Sarwar said that on his May visit to Qatar he assured the Qatari government that Pakistan would provide the blue-collar workforce with vocational training, security verification, vaccination, awareness on industrial safety and basic English language skills.
The minister said the government would work with companies to train these skilled and semi-skilled workers, expected to bring in more than $590 million annually into the country.
The workers will be trained at vocational training institutes in Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and Lahore.
Economist Qais Aslam, who teaches at the University of Central Punjab, applauded the government initiative, saying it would relieve pressure to provide opportunities to Pakistan's workforce.
"These 200,000 workers will get jobs in Qatar and whatever they earn in Qatar will come as foreign remittances to Pakistan, which will increase Pakistan's foreign reserves," Aslam told News Lens Pakistan.
Once the fully trained workforce returns to Pakistan from Qatar they could be engaged in the China-Pakistan economic corridor, a planned series of projects linking western China with Pakistan, giving China access to the Indian Ocean.
"It will bring a new era of Qatar-Pakistan relationship," Aslam said. "This corridor will also link China to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Russia and Europe through the land route.
"My fears are that the uneducated and unskilled Pakistanis will be left behind, if our federal and regional governments and business managers do not prepare the capacity of our people for this change and opportunity."
Economist Mobeen Ahmed Chughtai said remittances have always been a pillar of the Pakistan economy.
"There is no doubt that sending workers to Qatar will result in substantial cash flow into the country that will help bolster the Pakistani economy in these troubled times," Chughtai told News Lens Pakistan.
"In the past, while the living conditions of those sent to foreign lands have improved, it has not translated into a blanket improvement or a policy change. I doubt this instance will be an exception," Chughtai said.
However, given Qatar's handling of laborers in the past, the immediate living conditions of the participating workers may actually worsen while they complete this project, he said.
Qatar has a shortage of workers due to labor-related controversies.
An infusion of workers from Pakistan will go a long way toward gathering the required international momentum for other countries to send workers to Qatar, too, Chughtai said.
Qatar has disputed the Amnesty findings and says improvements have been made.
New accommodations for more than 250,000 workers are being built across Qatar to the highest standards, Qatar's government said in a statement.
Furthermore, it says that the majority of workers who come to Qatar earn "considerably more" than they would at home.
Ume Laila Azhar, executive director of HomeNet Pakistan, a network of organizations working for the recognition and labor rights of home-based workers, also applauded the government's move for generating new job opportunities.
"But the government must come up with some plan and strategy for the workforce leaving for Qatar because eventually they will return to Pakistan one day. It has to make a long-run plan of engaging them in some other projects as soon as they return to Pakistan," Azhar told News Lens Pakistan.
The leader of the Wapda Hydroelectric Workers Union, Khurshid Ahmed, said the government should select the workforce entirely on merit because they will be the ambassadors of Pakistan to Qatar and other Gulf countries.
"Unskilled or unprofessionally trained workers will bring a bad name to Pakistan," Ahmed said.