Push for World Cup workers’ rights challenges Qataris and activists alike

By James M. Dorsey

It will take more than statements by trade unions and human rights groups and complaints to the International Labor Organization (ILO) to pressure Qatar to ensure that labor conditions in the Gulf state meet international standards as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

Trade unions and human rights group sought to maintain pressure on Qatar in recent days with a series of statements. International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) secretary general Sharan Burrow warned that scores of migrant workers could die building stadiums while Human Rights Watch charged that Qatari promises over the past two years since the Gulf State secured its World Cup hosting rights remained unfulfilled.

To be fair, pressure from the unions and human rights groups has already produced some albeit tentative results. Human Rights Watch Europe Director Jan Egeland was allowed to express his stinging criticism in a rare such press conference in the Qatari capital Doha. Ms. Burrow elicited on a visit to Doha last year a promise that Qatar would at least tacitly allow the formation of independent trade unions.

Qatar moreover has moved to significantly improve safety and security for migrant workers who constitute a majority of its population as well as their living conditions. Activists acknowledge the moves but argue that they don’t address fundamental infringements on freedom built into the dependence of a laborer on his sponsor. They also assert that the creation of independent unions would ensure material improvement as a result of collective bargaining.

Qatar is expected to hire up to one million additional workers to complete vast infrastructure projects, many of which are also related to the World Cup.

Criticism of the sponsorship system in Qatar and other Gulf states that deprives workers of freedom of movement and the right to freely change employers is long-standing. Condemnation by human rights groups had in the past little more than moral value that Gulf states could afford to ignore. Similarly, the unions, who if able to mobilize their members possess significantly more clout, lacked leverage until Qatar in December 2010 won the right to host the World Cup.

The increased clout of the ITUC with 175 million members in 153 countries became evident in November when Qatari Labor Minister Sultan bin Hassan advised Ms. Burrow that his government would not penalize workers who formed their own unions. The promise puts the ball in the court of the unions, which unlike human rights groups, potentially have the bodies to make their threat to launch a boycott of the World Cup credible. Trade union officials say they are preparing the legal and organizational ground to put the promise to the test.

Meanwhile, the ITUC last month lodged a complaint with the ILO charging that Qatar employed forced labor. It had earlier formally complained to the body that Qatar does not allow collective bargaining and the creation of independent unions. Unions and human rights activists have further called for enforcing the prohibition on illegal recruitment fees and a halt to the confiscation of passports.

In an interview with a Greek newspaper, Ms. Burrow charged this weekend that “more laborers will die during construction than the footballers who will step on the pitch.” Ms. Burrow described the Gulf state as “a 21st-century slave state.”

The trade union leader asserted that “the way Qatar takes advantage of migrant workers is a disgrace to football. Pressure on Qatar will increase... Qatar can no longer buy the respect of the international community.”

In the past year, Qatar has moved to enforce safety, security and health standards. It has also obliged companies to prove on-time payment to workers by monthly submitting their payrolls to the Labor Ministry, reduced the maximum number of workers to a room by half from eight to four and is planning the construction of a city for foreign workers with amenities such as shopping malls and cinemas.

In his news conference two days earlier to present Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2013, Mr. Egeland noted that “Qatar’s rulers asserted in 2010 that the country’s successful bid for the World Cup could inspire positive change and leave a huge legacy for the region, but the past two years have seen an absence of reform. If this persists, the tournament threatens to turn Qatar into a crucible of exploitation and misery for the workers who will build it.”

There is little doubt that Qatar sees the World Cup as a significant tool in its soft, cultural diplomacy as well as an engine of change, albeit of controlled change in an environment in which its rulers like those of the other Gulf states are seeking to maneuver in a region that is being swept by popular revolts demanding political and social change.

The demands by unions and human rights groups touch however on a nerve that would be raw even if the region’s political and social structures were not being questioned. Enhanced workers’ rights threatens to give a foreigners a stake in societies in which minority national populations are likely to find it increasingly difficult to maintain a situation in which the majority has no rights.

That is not only a challenge for Gulf rulers and their nationals, but also for activists who will need to address the fears and concerns of local citizenry in their push for greater rights of workers all of whom are guest laborers.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.


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