By James M. Dorsey
World soccer body FIFA has pledged to help bolster the rights of migrant workers building 2022 World Cup infrastructure in Qatar in a bid to fend off a global trade union campaign that would have denounced the Gulf state as a slave driver.
The pledge made after a meeting this week in Zurich between labour leaders and embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter in which the trade unionists handed Mr. Blatter outlining their plans for a campaign with the slogan, 'No World Cup in Qatar without labour rights'.
FIFA’s agreement to back trade union demands for improved working conditions in Qatar, the first Middle Eastern state to have won the right to host a World Cup, comes as Mr. Blatter is defending himself against widespread criticism of his assertion in an interview earlier this week that there was no racism on the soccer pitch. Mr. Blatter has since said that he was misunderstood.
FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said after the meeting with the labour leaders that the soccer body would help the International Trade Union Confederations (ITUC) "address labour issues with the Qatari authorities." Mr. Valcke said that FIFA further would adopt the labour leaders’ demand that future World Cup bidders be required to respect labour issues.
The ITUC, which represents 175 million workers in 153 countries, said in a report earlier this year that the working conditions of migrant workers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were "inhuman."
Entitled ‘Hidden faces of the Gulf miracle,’ the multi-media report demanded that Qatar prove that migrant workers building infrastructure for the tournament are not subject to inhuman conditions.
It charged that the working and living conditions of mostly Asian migrant labour being used to build nine stadiums in 10 years as Qatar are unsafe and unregulated.
“A huge migrant labour force, with very little rights, no access to any unions, very unsafe practices and inhuman living conditions will be literally putting their lives on the line to deliver the 2022 World Cup,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said at the time of the report’s release.
FIFA has a vested interest in mollifying the unions beyond not wanting another major controversy as it seeks to calm the storm over Mr. Blatter’s racism-related remarks.
Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf states have long been on the target list of labour organizations for their treatment of particularly un- or low-skilled workers. The issue touches a raw nerve in countries like Qatar and the UAE where the local population constitutes a minority. Gulf states are concerned that improving labour conditions would not only have economic consequences but also give foreigners a greater stake in a society which ensures they are forced to leave the country once their contract has ended.
An international campaign would tarnish Qatar’s international image carefully crafted with the launch in the 1990s of the Al Jazeera television network, the creation with Qatar Airways of a world class airline and the positioning of the Gulf state as an international sports hub with the hosting of tournaments like the World Cup and call into question FIFA’s vote in favour of Qatar.
An international labour campaign would moreover revive some of the controversy that has overshadowed Qatar’s success in becoming the first Middle Eastern state to host a World Cup. That success has been mired by allegations of corruption that so far have proven unsubstantiated; the downfall of Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari national who was FIFA vice-president and has been suspended as president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on charges of bribery, and concern that Qatar’s searing summer temperatures will impede performance during the tournament.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.