Qatar pledges to adhere to international labour laws in walk-up to 2022 World Cup

Qatar, with trade union lead­ers set for a sec­ond round of dis­cus­sions with world soc­cer body FIFA about ques­tion­able labour con­di­tions in the Gulf state, has vowed to ensure that con­trac­tors involved in prepa­ra­tions for the 2022 World Cup will adhere to inter­na­tion­al labour laws.

An offi­cial of the trade union, Build­ing and Wood Work­ers Inter­na­tion­al, said the unions were sched­uled to meet again with FIFA in late Jan­u­ary, as a fol­low-up to a meet­ing in Novem­ber with FIFA pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter.

FIFA pledged after that meet­ing to help bol­ster the rights of migrant work­ers build­ing World Cup infra­struc­ture in Qatar in a bid to fend off a glob­al trade union cam­paign that would denounce under the slo­gan, ‘No World Cup in Qatar with­out labour rights,’ the Gulf state as a slave dri­ver. The unions have giv­en FIFA six months to ensure that Qatar meets inter­na­tion­al labour stan­dards.

Qatar is the first Mid­dle East­ern state to have won the right to host the world’s largest sport­ing event.

The union’s mes­sage to FIFA appears to have not been lost on Qatar even though union offi­cials said they could not oper­ate in the Gulf state, which has no unions of its own.

Speak­ing at Carnegie Mel­lon University’s cam­pus in the Qatari cap­i­tal of Doha, Qatar 2022 Supreme Com­mit­tee Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al Has­san Al Thawa­di con­ced­ed that “major sport­ing events shed a spot­light on con­di­tions in coun­tries. There are labour issues here in the coun­try, but Qatar is com­mit­ted to reform. We will require that con­trac­tors impose a clause to ensure that inter­na­tion­al labour stan­dards are met. Sport and foot­ball in par­tic­u­lar, is a very pow­er­ful force. Cer­tain­ly we can use it for the ben­e­fit of the region.”

Qatar has embarked on a mega infra­struc­ture pro­gram in advance of the World Cup involv­ing an $11 bil­lion new inter­na­tion­al air­port, a $5.5 bil­lion deep water sea­port, a $1 bil­lion trans­port cor­ri­dor in Doha, expen­di­ture of $20 bil­lion on roads and $4 bil­lion for the con­struc­tion of nine new sta­di­ums and ren­o­va­tion of three exist­ing ones.

Mr. Thawa­di said at a brain­storm in Doha ear­li­er this month on the role of gov­ern­ment, busi­ness and NGOs in sports that the Gulf state would award the man­age­ment con­tract for over­sight of the infra­struc­ture pro­gram in the first quar­ter of this year

The Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tions (ITUC), which rep­re­sents 175 mil­lion work­ers in 153 coun­tries, charged in a report ear­li­er this year that the work­ing con­di­tions of migrant work­ers in Qatar and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates were “inhu­man.”

Enti­tled ‘Hid­den faces of the Gulf mir­a­cle,’ the mul­ti-media report demand­ed that Qatar prove that migrant work­ers build­ing infra­struc­ture for the tour­na­ment are not sub­ject to inhu­man con­di­tions.

It said that the work­ing and liv­ing con­di­tions of most­ly Asian migrant labour in Qatar 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.

Qatar and oth­er oil-rich Gulf states have long been tar­get­ed by labour orga­ni­za­tions for their treat­ment of par­tic­u­lar­ly unskilled and low-skilled work­ers. Qatar like the UAE and oth­ers in the Gulf oper­ates a spon­sor­ship pro­gram under which all for­eign work­ers have to have a local spon­sor who can make seek­ing alter­na­tive employ­ment or anoth­er spon­sor dif­fi­cult and who often retains the worker’s pass­port on employ­ment. Trade union­ists argue that the lack of a min­i­mum wage fur­ther enhances exploita­tion of labour.

The issue of work­ers’ rights 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.

Pres­sure on Qatar from FIFA and the trade unions comes at a time that the Gulf state is enthralled in a debate about its nation­al iden­ti­ty in which con­ser­v­a­tive and nation­al­ist forces object to con­ces­sions being made to for­eign­ers and fans expect­ed to attend the World Cup such as allow­ing the sale of alco­hol and pork. Qatar, which per­mits the serv­ing of alco­hol to for­eign­ers in hotels and on board state-owned Qatar Air­ways, has said it would cre­ate free zones dur­ing the tour­na­ment in which fans would be allowed to con­sume alco­hol.

A trade union 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 as 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 and call into ques­tion FIFA’s vote in favour of Qatar. Qatar is prepar­ing to also bid for the 2020 Olympic Games and the 2019 World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onship.

An inter­na­tion­al labour cam­paign would more­over 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.

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.