Labour unions threaten Qatar with global anti-World Cup campaign

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.”

About The Author:
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.