By James M. Dorsey
International trade unions this week rejected World Cup-related Qatari proposals to meet concerns about worker rights, including health and safety that violate international human and labor rights as well as principles the Gulf state had adopted as a member of the International Labor Organization ILO.
The unions said they were moving ahead with plans for a global campaign this summer under the motto 'No World Cup in Qatar without labor rights’, to deprive Qatar of its right to host the 2022 World Cup if it failed to align its labor legislation and workers’ condition with international standards.
“It is not too late to change the venue of the World Cup. This is not an industrial skirmish about wages; this is a serious breach in regard to human and labor rights. The country is incredibly wealthy and is portraying itself as a model country. That is simply not true.
Our members are football fans and they don’t want to see the game played in a country that practices slavery,” Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 175 million workers in 153 countries, said in a telephone interview.
A spokesman for the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee declined to comment on Ms. Burrow’s statements.
The looming confrontation between Qatar and the international workers’ movement comes at a sensitive time for the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that incorporates Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. The GCC is preparing for a summit in Riyadh later this month to discuss a political union that would allow Saudi Arabia to pressure the smaller states to fall in line with its more conservative social and foreign policies at a time that the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing popular revolts in demand of greater freedom.
The issue of labor rights is also sensitive because several Gulf states have populations that are in majority foreign. Beyond the commercial and economic advantages of a cheap pool of labor, discussion of any kind of rights for non-locals raises the specter of the minority Gulf population in countries like Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait no longer having a country that is theirs and which they control.
“It’s a real problem. Everybody knows that,” said a source close to Qatari and Gulf thinking on the issue against the backdrop of the UAE and Bahrain alongside Qatar seeking to project themselves as global sports hubs. An attempt by Bahrain to project an image of business as normal and distract attention from continuing popular discontent despite the suppression of last year’s revolt by letting Formula 1 go ahead last month backfired with protests overshadowing the race.
Ms. Burrow said the unions were seeking an urgent Qatari acceptance and implementation of international human and labor rights because the Gulf state was about to start construction of World Cup-related infrastructure.
Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee this week issued a second tender for the project, design, commercial and construction management of one of the 12 stadiums it is planning for the tournament, nine of which will be newly built. The three remaining stadiums already exist but need to be refurbished. The committee earlier tendered the contract for a master planning and lead design consultant for the stadiums.
“Gradual change is not good enough. The urgency is because the stadiums are about to be constructed in a serious way. Companies are gearing up their supply chains and costing infrastructure on a model of modern day slavery. We want that to change and companies might have to adjust their costing and pricing accordingly,” Ms. Burrow said.
Qatar with a majority expatriate population expects to import up to one million foreign workers to complete infrastructure needed both for the World Cup and the development of the energy-rich nation.
In a statement, the ITUC said it had requested an urgent meeting with Qatari labor minister Sultan bin Hassan, charging that “workers are dying in Qatar as they build World Cup stadiums and infrastructure, and suffer large scale exploitation every day.” Ms. Burrow said she had yet to receive a reply to the letter, which was also sent to world soccer body FIFA.
The union leader said that some 200 Nepalese died last year in Qatar, a favored destination for the country’s low skilled expat labor; 30 of them while on a construction job while another approximately 70 as a result of the country’s brutal summer temperatures that rise above 40 degrees Celsius. It was not clear whether any of these deaths were directly related to World Cup-related construction. “We quite confidently predict that more people will die off the field than there are players on the field,” Ms. Burrow said. She said she would soon be travelling to Nepal for discussions with the government and trade unions.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Burrow pointed to a report in The Himalaya Times that described Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia as “graveyards for young Nepali workers in the 25-42 years age group.”
The unions in a meeting with FIFA last November gave the soccer body and FIFA six months to ensure that workers in Qatar have “the legal right to organize themselves in free, independent trade unions without punishment or interference from authorities” that could “collectively bargain” with employers.
“Construction workers, the majority who are migrant workers are risking their lives today as they work in poor and unsafe conditions with low wages. They need trade union rights today to protect them", the ITUC statement quoted Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of Building and Wood Workers International, as saying.
Ms. Burrow said the fight for workers’ rights in Qatar was a battle for labor rights in the region. She said of the three GCC states – Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait – that legally allow trade unions only Bahrain had enshrined international standards in its legislation. She said Bahrain’s progress had however been marred by last year’s Saudi-backed brutal repression of a popular uprising in which teachers, nurses, doctors and others were detained and tortured for demanding basic democratic rights.
“Bahrain was on track until it came under pressure. The prime minister admitted to us that there were concerns from the Gulf states around them, Saudi Arabia in particular but also Qatar etc. Bahrain at least had public recognition of the rights if not realization of those rights in their totality because of the pressure of the Gulf states,” Ms. Burrow said.
She said a Qatari proposal for the creation of a labor committee and abolishment of its controversial system of sponsorship of foreign labor was a “far cry” from union demands for a free and independent trade union and equitable and human working conditions.
Qatar is seeking to project itself as a show case member of the global community, “yet it is so far outside the basic human framework of human and labor rights” that it need to choose between being part of the international community or a model of 21st century slavery, Ms. Burrow said.
Qatari media this week quoted Labor Undersecretary Hussain Al Mulla as saying that the country’s emir was considering a plan to establish a Qatari-led labor committee that would represent workers’ interests as well as an abolition of the sponsorship system that would stop short of allowing foreigners to freely change jobs. Qatar recently abandoned the requirement that foreign workers surrender their passports to their Qatari employers. Mr. Al Mulla said the plan had already been endorsed by the Qatari prime minister.
Denouncing conditions of foreign workers in Qatar as 21st century slavery, Ms. Burrow said unions were demanding not only improved health and safety conditions but also the ability to live freely in the community, bring their families and move freely in and out of the country. “Current conditions are absolute enslavement to the employer,” Ms. Burrow said.
She said Mr. Al Mulla’s proposal for a labor committee involved creation of a government controlled body rather than an independent trade union. The way Qatar planned to abolish the sponsorship system failed to create a level playing field or guarantee workers’ freedom of movement, she said.
Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee Secretary General Hassan Al Thawadi pledged early this year in a speech at Carnegie Mellon University’s campus in Doha that the Gulf state would adhere to international labor standards.
"Major sporting events shed a spotlight on conditions in countries. There are labor issues here in the country, but Qatar is committed to reform. We will require that contractors impose a clause to ensure that international labor standards are met. Sport and football in particular, is a very powerful force. Certainly we can use it for the benefit of the region." Mr. Al Thawadi 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.