By James M. Dorsey
Labour organizations are warning world soccer body FIFA and by extension Qatar that they will launch an international campaign to deprive the Gulf state of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup if it fails to get its act together on workers’ rights.
Representatives of international trade unions issued their warning in a letter to FIFA President Sepp Blatter. The letter advised Mr. Blatter that their campaign would be launched with the slogan, 'No World Cup in Qatar without labour rights'.
The letter and a meeting on Thursday with Mr. Blatter follows a union report issued earlier this year that condemned the working conditions of migrant workers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as "inhuman."
Entitled ‘Hidden faces of the Gulf miracle,’ the multi-media report issued in May by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union, and Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) 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 seeks to be the first Arab country to host the World Cup 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.
BWI secretary general Ambet Yuson charged that Qatar’s “ability to deliver the World Cup is totally dependent on severe exploitation of migrant labour, which we believe to be barely above forced labour conditions.” Mr. Yuson noted that "just six per cent of the working population of Qatar is Qatari.”
The report stressed that FIFA requires soccer manufacturers to respect workers' rights in its licensing program, but has no such standards for companies building World Cup venues.
Qatar expects to invest $88 billion in infrastructure for the games, according to Enrico Grino, Qatar National Bank’s assistant general manager and head of project finance.
The vast majority of Qatar's workforce consists of foreign migrant workers, many of whom hail from South and East Asia. Nepal's Department of Foreign Employment told local media earlier this month that Qatar had become the biggest foreign employer of Nepalese workers as a result of World Cup-related construction projects.
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.
Nonetheless, 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.
An international labour campaign would 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.
In its letter to Mr. Blatter the ITUC said the ITUC and BWI as well as Swiss Union Unia were "continuing to receive reports of unsafe working conditions and abuse of workers' rights as Qatar sets out to build nine stadiums in 10 years using mostly migrant labour."
Qatar’s failure to act in the wake of the report prompted the letter to Mr. Blatter and the planned campaign. "FIFA has the power to make labour rights a requirement of the Qatari authorities who are hosting a World Cup," Mr. Burrow said.
In a statement the ITUC said that the labour organisations "would mobilise workers and football fans to target each of FIFA's football associations and the international body to stop the World Cup in Qatar if labour rights are not respected. With 308 national trade union centres in 153 countries, the international trade union movement has the members, the power and the mandate to take action to stop the Qatar World Cup."
"We urge FIFA to include labour rights as a prerequisite to any future country wanting to host the World Cup. Support from countries with decent labour rights will be used to pressure the Qatari authorities and FIFA to protect workers' rights, particularly migrant workers who are the majority of the construction work force in Qatar," Mr. Yuson said.
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.