From the TUC

Promising little, delivering less: Qatar fails its migrant workers

21 May 2015, by Guest in International

Yes, the World Cup, there’s nothing like it. It’s still seven-and-a-half years (now that it’s being played in the winter) until kick-off, but the spotlight is now firmly on Qatar 2022. It’s the one that people like me (non-football fans) are on the edge of our seats about.

The situation’s clear enough: on top of allegations of corruption in the original bidding process, the big issue is the exploitation and endangerment of thousands of migrant workers building Qatar’s football infrastructure. It’s received acres (football field’s worth?) of coverage and the Qatari authorities have, under pressure, promised improvements. Promised, but not delivered. Amnesty has just produced a “scorecard” of nine key areas that need urgent reform (things like whether workers’ passports are confiscated, whether they’re allowed to form a trade union, or whether the “kafala” employment system will still tie workers to specific employers) and we have marked the Qatari authorities on their performance since promises were made a year ago. Look away now if you don’t want to know the score …

It’s a resounding defeat for the workers. In five areas there has been limited progress. In four areas there’s been … nothing at all. After all the promises.

In fact Qatar seems at least as determined to change the story as it is the reality. So it’s been taking journalists on guided tours of newly-built accommodation buildings for migrant workers then reacting angrily when some of them try to break away from the tour parties to see what the not-so-new ones are like. Arresting a four-person BBC crew for doing precisely this recently wasn’t just a lumbering PR own goal, it reveals a mind-set which still doesn’t seem to understand that hosting an international sporting event of this magnitude brings with it a lot of scrutiny. As my colleague Niluccio points out, the Qatari authorities tend to mix a high-handed money-buys-everything-ness (the Shard, Canary Wharf, expensive public relations company Portland Communications) and a streak of authoritarianism that – for example – finds it acceptable to sentence a poet to life imprisonment.

Where all this is going is difficult to determine. Time is running out over meaningful reforms ahead of 2022. The TUC-affiliated football supporters’ PlayFair Qatar organisation calculates that at the present rate of worker deaths in Qatar, some 4,000 will have died by the time the first World Cup game kicks off in 2022 (or put it another way: that’s the equivalent of 62 deaths for each game in Qatar’s glitzy stadia). Playfair and the ITUC and others have been trying to ratchet up the pressure on big commercial sponsors like Adidas and Visa (not to mention well-known health-and-fitness-friendly companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Budweiser).

And then there’s FIFA itself, that old bogeyman of sporting governance. FIFA’s current president Sepp Blatter seems all but deaf to entreaties to do more on things like labour standards (see Marina Hyde’s latest savaging of Blatter here) and – away from Qatar – his recent proposal for a “peace match” between Israel and Palestine seems to me typical of the vacuousness of so many FIFA initiatives (the deeper reasons why football itself is indeed a ‘political football’ for Palestinians are well explored by Harriet Salem here). Meanwhile, a recent attempt by a coalition of campaigners to procure pledges over human rights from those hoping to replace Blatter as FIFA president has met with some success.

With such indifference and obfuscation, Qatar’s deep-seated labour issues are going to take a lot of sorting out. Millions of overseas workers will continue to risk being cheated, underpaid, overworked, maimed through injury and even killed while they slog through their long hot days building the stadia and associated infrastructure for this football jamboree. Meanwhile, we’re likely to get more and more puff stories about Qatar’s “model” accommodation blocks and worker villages.

This is why Amnesty needs to make common cause with the global unions, with construction workers, anti-slavery campaigners, with football fans, and conscientious politicians, to keep the pressure on the sponsors as well as FIFA, the national Football Associations and the Qatari authorities. It is high time to deliver concrete action rather than mealy-mouthed words and unrealised promises. Our tactics and capacities may differ, but together we have a powerful voice, which cannot be silenced by intimidating film crews and journalists or through window dressing. Qatari ministers and PR companies will be singing from their same hymn sheet. They think that if they sing together, maybe they can blot out the bad news …but there is a growing clamor for real change which will not be silenced until the coffins stop being shipped to Kathmandu and other Asian capitals, and migrant workers are treated with dignity and with respect for their rights in the richest country in the world.