2022 Qatar World Cup under pressure for labor measures
James M. Dorsey ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
International trade unions this week rejected World Cup-related Qatari proposals to meet concerns about worker rights, including health and safety, which 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.
The looming confrontation between Qatar and the international workers’ movement comes at a sensitive time for the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which 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 when 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 made up of a majority of foreigners. 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 One go ahead last month backfired with protests overshadowing the race.
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 tendered the contract for a master planning and lead design consultant for the stadiums earlier.
“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,” Burrow said.
Fight for rights
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 protesters were detained for demanding 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,” 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 PLANS TO IMPORT 1 MILLION FOREIGN WORKERS
Qatar, with a majority expatriate population, expects to import up to one million foreign workers to complete infrastructure needed for the World Cup. 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.” Burrow said she had yet to receive a reply to the letter, which was also sent to world football 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 approximately another 70 as a result of the country’s brutal summer temperatures that rise above 40 degrees Celsius.
“We quite confidently predict that more people will die off the field than there are players on the field,” Burrow said.