Qatar broaches sensitive demography through football

Qatar broaches sensitive demography through football

James M. Dorsey ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Qatar broaches sensitive demography through football


Qatar’s football league, in a break with the reluctance among Gulf states to give their largely expatriate majorities a sense of belonging, is organizing the region’s first tournament for foreign workers’ teams next month.

The cup, involving up to 24 teams formed by foreign workers primarily from Asia, who account for the bulk of Qatar’s 1.5 million expatriates, is part of an effort to improve working and living conditions as well as a bid to fend off international trade union demands to meet global labor standards.

Meeting those standards would involve abolishing the widely criticized sponsorship system common to various Gulf states, which effectively gives employers full control over their employees; allowing the creation of independent trade unions; and adopting the principle of collective bargaining. These are changes Qatar has until now shown no inclination to entertain.

The cup further fits into Qatar’s sports strategy that aims to make sports a part of the country’s national identity and constitutes a key pillar of its cultural and public diplomacy as well as its global projection of soft power as part of its foreign, defense and security policy.

International trade unions have threatened Qatar with a boycott of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup if it fails to adopt international labor standards. Meanwhile, human rights groups are documenting individual cases of workers, which they consider to be violations of labor standards. In some cases they are intervening to improve their conditions. The government’s tacit cooperation - in instances such as the football tournament and moves to improve worker safety and security, as well as living conditions - constitute small, but not insignificant, steps forward.

Labor standards

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) charges that Qatar’s steps fall short of its promise to fully comply with international labor standards and are being implemented unilaterally, rather than in consultation.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said last month that she was “disappointed to hear that the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee has publicly asserted that it has ‘sought out concrete suggestions on best practice.’ The ITUC, representing the world’s working people, has not been consulted nor seen the draft charter. The U.N., the IMF, the World Bank and the G20 are seen as fit to discuss labor issues with the ITUC and consult with worker representatives in formal and informal dialogues. However, Qatar’s Supreme Committee appears to ignore the accepted protocols in their failure to discuss the workers’ charter with the ITUC.”

The breaking point in discussions is likely to be the demands for independent unions and collective bargaining.

A recent survey by the Permanent Population Committee (PPC) concluded that more than 80 percent of Qataris worry about the country’s dependence on foreign labor, which is expected to increase even further with the import of more workers needed to complete the $150 billion worth of infrastructure projects in advance of the World Cup.

The government this week said it would establish an independent committee to protect the rights of private sector workers that would help them in disputes with their employers and offer legal aid in cases of work-related injuries or deaths. It said the 50-member committee would be populated by employers and employees, seven of which would be appointed as board members. However, the committee’s status would fall short of that of an independent union that could engage in collective bargaining.

The unions charged last month that the number of construction site injuries in Qatar was increasing and that workers in Doha’s Sports City stadium were eight times more likely to die in a fatal accident than construction workers in Britain. “They think that more than 1,000 workers were injured in falls last year; that’s very serious. The problem in Qatar is that the workers don’t have rights to be involved in any prevention measures, they don’t have training, they don’t have the equipment,” said Fiona Murie of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).


In this file photo, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad and his
wife, Sheikha Moza, hold a World Cup replica trophy
after winning the 2020 bid. REUTERS photos

Demographic dilemma

Progressive Qataris acknowledge privately that their country’s demography is unsustainable, with less than 300,000 nationals against an increasing foreign population that is currently estimated at 1.7 million. That demography has until now persuaded Qataris and other Gulf nationals to ensure that foreigners are reminded that they are only temporary residents for the duration of their contract.

Those reminders included a reluctance of sports clubs to attract non-nationals as fans. As a result, football stadiums in the region are largely empty. Qataris further admit that stadium attendance is also low because they perceive their country’s clubs, often owned by members of the royal family, as “the sheikh’s clubs.” The foreign workers’ tournament, while not intended to reverse that policy, constitutes a potential chink in its armor.

To increase stadium audiences and increase the local population’s involvement with clubs, Qatar is looking at the possibility of transferring ownership to publicly held companies. The foreign workers’ tournament is viewed by many as a first step towards creating a fan base for Qatari clubs among the country’s a non-Qatari population – an initiative long shied away from by clubs across the region because it could be a first step toward a greater attachment to their host countries.

Qatar University sociologist Kaltham al-Ghanim recently called on the sports clubs to set up branches in the Industrial Zone where many foreign workers are housed, “in order to channel their energy to productive avenues and to hunt for sporting talent.” Al-Ghanim cautioned that if foreign workers were allowed to “live on the social fringes, the danger is they would take to illegal activities and emerge as a threat to social security.” She said the need to engage them socially was enhanced by the fact that many of them were unmarried, or living in Qatar without their families.