By James M. Dorsey
Employment-related complaints by two international players, one of whom is barred from leaving Qatar, threaten to overshadow the 2022 World Cup organizing committee’s release of a charter of worker’s rights designed to fend off criticism of labor conditions in the Gulf state.
In separate interviews French-Algerian player Zahir Belounis, who is locked into a salary dispute with Al Jaish SC, the club owned by the Qatari military, and Moroccan international Abdessalam Ouadoo, who left Qatar last November to join AS Nancy-Lorraine, complained about failure to honor their contracts and pay their salaries as well as ill treatment.
The Qatar Stars League, the country’s premier league, did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Belounis is locked into a court battle with AL Jaish to get payment of almost two years of unpaid salary. He has been barred from leaving the country in a bid to force him to settle for faction of what is owed to him. “This is a crazy story… I cannot move around freely, I cannot work anymore, I'm 33 years old ... Who wants a player who has not played for months? Frankly, my career takes a hit,” he told Jeune Afrique.
In an interview with the BBC’s World Football, a clearly angry Mr. Ouadoo, who is owed five months’ salary, denounced the alleged refusal of Qataris to honor contracts. “The Qataris showed me no respect and I can never forgive them for that. I know that money is king but you don’t treat a man like that without paying a price,” Mr. Ouadoo said, asserting that he had been “treated like a slave.”
Mr. Ouadoo said he was barred last summer from joining his club for three weeks of training in Spain. Instead, he was forced to train in the Gulf state’s excruciating summer heat when temperatures go up to 50 degrees Celsius “just to push me to forget my rights. They did everything to discourage me…. The Qataris think they can do everything because they think money can buy anything: buildings, jazz, beautiful cars and men… Human rights are not respected. Human beings are not respected. The workers are not respected. A country that does not respect all these things should not organize the World Cup 2022,” Mr. Ouadoo said.
International players union FIFPro Africa division secretary general Stephane Burckhalter, whose group reportedly is investigating Mr. Belounis’ case, said about Mr. Ouadoo’s experience: “Nothing can justify this. These practices are shocking, unacceptable and outrageous.” Added a prominent soccer consultant: “Belounis’ case is typical for Qatar: contract then falling out of favor, then pressure to leave without being paid, passport withdrawn, etc...”
Mr. Ouadoo employed the very language the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is using in a bid to persuade world soccer body FIFA to deprive Qatar of its right to host the World Cup by –re-running the December 2010 vote that awarded it to the Gulf state. The ITUC campaign follows two years of intermittent talks with Qatar with no agreement on demands that it endorse the principles of independent trade unions and collective bargaining, sensitive issues in a country in which foreign labor constitutes the vast majority of the population.
The complaints of Messrs Belounis and Ouadoo could not have come at a worse moment for Qatar. They coincided with the unveiling by Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee Workers’ Charter that would be binding on World Cup-related projects. The charter, a set of lofty principles, affirms the right of those working on projects “to be treated in a manner that ensures at all times their well-being, health, safety and security.”
Qatar Foundation, in a statement three days before the release of the charter, said it was working on a charter of its own and was introducing sweeping measures that “can guarantee the rights of workers at all stages of the migration cycle − from the moment they are recruited and until they are repatriated to their home countries.” It said its charter and measures were “based upon a holistic and principled approach that combines Qatari Labor Law and international best practice.”
Qatari labor law that enshrines the principle of kafala or sponsorship, under which an employee is beholden to his employer and that is at the root of the restrictions on freedom of movement that Messrs Belounis and Ouadoo experienced has long been criticized by human rights groups and is one key reason why the unions have turned on the Gulf state.
In a statement the 2022 Supreme Committee said that “our commitment is to change working conditions in order to ensure a lasting legacy of improved worker welfare. We are aware that this cannot be done overnight. But the 2022 FIFA World Cup is acting as a catalyst for improvements in this regard.” The statement said monitoring and enforcement of the committee’s charter would be key once construction of stadiums and other infrastructure begins.
Up to half a million workers were likely to be recruited for projects according to a recent estimate by Qatar labor undersecretary Hussain Al Mulla. Mr. Al Mulla appeared to be cutting back radically on earlier predictions that Qatar would be importing up to a million workers. A Bank of America Merrill Lynch research note reported that Qatar was negotiating with FIFA to reduce the number of venues for the tournament from 12 as proposed in its bid to eight or nine.
Labor conditions “is a matter of utmost importance for all those involved in the organization of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar 2022. We have always acknowledged that the current state of workers’ welfare needs to be improved. From the very beginning, we have pointed to the power of football as a tremendous catalyst for tangibly improving labor conditions in Qatar and the region at large. From day one, we have been working towards this objective with much care and great dedication to ensure that this is a key legacy of our tournament,” the committee statement said.
A committee spokesperson said in an email that “the Charter is a starting point of reference. It is important to point out that progress and developments are taking place on a daily basis in Qatar. The Charter is only one aspect of a larger mosaic of change.”
The statement described the ITUC appeal to FIFA as ‘disingenuous’ and charged that “this campaign is counterproductive and not in the spirit of collaboration.” The ITUC cited earlier the fact that it had not been consulted on the Supreme Committee’s charter as one of the reasons why it was now seeking to deprive Qatar of the hosting of the World Cup.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog