Following a catalogue of condemnation, a real chance for change in Qatar


Ever since the absolute monarchy of Qatar was controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup, it has come under increased scrutiny from the world’s forces for democracy.

And as the FIFA Executive Committee meets in Brazil this week, the issue of migrant workers in Qatar will be one of the first items on the agenda.

For over two years, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other human rights groups have campaigned tirelessly to draw attention to way in which Qatar violates a whole host of fundamental labour and human rights.

As whistleblowers, we have also tried to engage the Qatari authorities in a dialogue to address the issues.

In these past few weeks, however, other major players have joined the clamour of voices adding pressure on Qatar to play a whole new ball game.

Attracting the world’s spotlight, it would appear, has its consequences.

After settling the squabble about switching the traditional summer games to the winter, FIFA has finally acknowledged that there are serious issues with the treatment of the migrant workers who are building the 2022 World Cup infrastructure.

At 88 per cent of the country’s workforce, Qatar has the highest percentage of migrant workers in the world. Many work in the country’s booming construction industry for low, sometimes no, wages.

And because of the terrible working conditions these workers face, we fear that as many as 4,000 workers could die before a single ball is kicked in Qatar unless urgent and fundamental reforms are made.


A busy November

This past November saw a significant amount of movement on Qatar.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter finally broke his vow of silence on Qatar last month when he visited the gulf peninsula on 9 November and applauded the country’s efforts to address “the problems with labour and workers.”

But the next day, following his own visit to Qatar, the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrant Workers François Crépeau came to a different conclusion.

He called Qatar’s World Cup labour camps “slum-like dumps” and highlighted the failings of the country’s 2004 labour law.

The lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining, discrimination, and significant limitations to the freedom of movement of migrant workers due to the kafala (or sponsorship system) were all serious concerns.

On 17 November Amnesty International launched a damning report on Qatar, which provided shocking tales of abuse from no less than 210 migrant workers.

Following these reports, on 20 November, the ITUC met with FIFA, urging the international football governing body to join the growing movement calling for labour reforms in Qatar.

FIFA has now committed to presenting concrete measures for Qatar at its Executive Committee meeting in March 2014.

Pushing to remedy limitations on the freedom of movement and the right of workers to change their employer might take FIFA well out of its comfort zone.

In 1995, FIFA lost the Bosman case in the European Court of Justice which confirmed the right of EU-based football players to transfer to another club at the end of their contracts without paying a transfer fee.

On the other hand, as both FIFA and Qatar are glamorous and attractive employers affected by human trafficking committed by unscrupulous agents, finding a way to regulate and effectively monitor transnational recruitment might be beneficial to both.

On 22 November, the European Parliament passed an ‘emergency resolution’ urging FIFA and Qatar to banish ‘slavery’ from the 2022 World Cup.

Last week, just days after the French-Algerian footballer Zahir Belounis was finally granted an exit visa to leave Qatar following a long-running dispute over unpaid wages, another international trade union delegation visited Qatar but found “no improvement in living and working conditions of migrant workers.”

And only yesterday, George Miller, Ranking Member on the US House of Representatives Labour and Education Committee, sent letters to FIFA and CH2M Hill, the prime contractor for the Qatar World Cup, in support of the ITUC’s demands on core labour rights.


Silent diplomacy

Few people know, however, that during the height of all this attention over the last month, the Qatar National Human Rights Committee hosted a ‘diplomatic training programme’ in cooperation with the University of New South Wales and Migrant Forum Asia.

As diplomacy demands, the seminar was a low-key affair despite its ambitious demands to form “an elite group that will promote the implementation of the objectives of both the session and those outlined by the International Labour Organization”.

Behind closed doors and under the reassuring comfort of the Chatham House rule, human rights activists fiercely debated with various Qatari officials.

Positions and viewpoints were as incongruent as one could imagine, but after five days, fragile relationships were built on a certain degree of mutual respect and common understanding.

Following the meeting it was clear, however, that Qatar’s politicians are far from sharing a common goal when it comes to addressing workers’ rights in Qatar.

And even once they reach an accord, real change will depend on the work of civil servants – some of whom took part in this training.

Some argue that Qatar still has eight years to get its house in order before the World Cup kicks off in 2022. It doesn’t.

The first contracts have already been awarded. Hundreds of new migrant workers are arriving in Qatar every week. Most of them will be exploited unless there is a real, structural change.

The headstart these Qatari officials have taken with the diplomacy training programme in understanding the human rights of migrant workers might make a difference.

But a headstart is no use if there is no political kick-off.


The Qatari point of view

At around the same time last month, Qatar celebrated its National Human Rights Day on 11 November.

Chairman of the National Human Rights Committee Dr Ali bin Smaikh al-Marri said on the occasion: “We have the right to feel proud of Qatar’s unprecedented renaissance in our region. Qatar has become an example to follow since it made wide strides in boosting and protecting human rights ...”

This comment provides a good illustration of the Qatari perspective.

In its response to the resounding criticism it has received in recent months, Qatar has repeatedly referred to the development of a worker welfare committee and its soon-to-be published worker welfare standards.

But this only goes to show that while the demand for the improved living and working conditions of migrant workers has struck something of a chord with the Qataris, the more fundamental issue of freedom of association hasn’t.

The Qatar Foundation  is a major contracting agency in the field of community development, education and science, set up turn Qatar’s oil-based economy into a diversified knowledge economy.

It has a set of ‘Mandatory Standards’, which have been adopted by other contracting agencies including the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee.

These standards are a step in the right direction.

But they also have serious limitations in terms of impact and sustainable reform.

First of all, these standards are not legally binding.

In addition to having no real enforcement mechanisms or credible dispute resolution system, such standards simply translate freedom of association into setting up worker committees.

Without the right to join or form an independent union, these standards are bound to be ineffective buffers used to fence off management and government responsibilities.

The Qatari authorities need to understand that freedom of association is absolutely fundamental to improving its position on the human rights violations it has received international condemnation for.

When workers are free to organise and bargain collectively, the private sector will, to a certain extent, regulate itself. Living and working conditions will improve. Wages will be more balanced. Adequate and sector-specific health and safety measures will be developed. And there will be permanent monitoring of the recruitment and treatment of workers.

This will help the government fulfil its responsibility to protect human rights, especially in the workplace.

But until the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are enshrined in the legislation and appropriately enforced, the violations – and outcry – will persist.

The time has come for the government of Qatar to take urgent steps to change this.