There’s a reason we don’t trust Qatar when they tell us we’re wrong about the prediction of 4,000 deaths before the 2022 World Cup. It’s because they can’t stop themselves hiding, misrepresenting or ignoring statistics. They won’t give free and independent access to journalists and researchers to find out the truth (they arrested German and British TV crews trying to talk to migrant workers), and they won’t even carry out their own proper review of the situation, despite being advised to do so by a major report they commissioned from the law firm DLA Piper back in 2014. They certainly won’t allow workers the right to join a union and report these problems themselves.
Our latest beef is the sleight of hand of quoting an ILO report back at their critics. The report, say supporters of the government of Qatar, shows that only 35 workers died in Qatar last year. The International Labour Organisation has indeed been putting pressure on Qatar to fix its systemic abuse of migrant workers, which it alleges put it in breach of international regulations regarding forced labour (one of the few labour standards Qatar has bothered to sign up to). As part of that process the ILO carried out a review, sending a small “tripartite” (representatives of governments, employers and workers were sent) team to carry out a series of fairly surface level investigations. The report that followed it quotes figures from a Qatari hospital showing 35 deaths .
So there it is, in black and white: seemingly, a UN report showing that only 35 workers died in Qatar. Their commitment to workers has apparently been so impressive that they’ve gone from 1,000 workers dying between 2012-13 (as stated in their own DLA Piper report) to only 35 last year, which frankly is probably less than the UK. That would be in the realm of miracles (if still too high in the context of such a small country).
The problem here is the section of the report where this figure arises is part of a chapter dedicated to stats provided by the Qatari government. They’re not independently researched, or even verified. They’re just statements from an interested party. It’s the equivalent of making something up, putting it on a blog, waiting for a serious newspaper to pick it up and then quoting it as a fact because it’s in a newspaper.
Fellow campaigners report that their efforts to spread the word about conditions in Qatar have been met with dissenting voices quoting the 35 deaths figure as fact because it appears in a UN report: “Here’s an extract from the recent ILO report!” An article in “Gulf Business” about the deaths last week at a military construction project said “despite this, worker deaths are rare, with 35 recorded last year by the UN.” They were indeed recorded by the UN, they were quoted in a UN document; just as you could find, if you looked hard enough at ILO documents, a quote of the ITUC’s 4,000 figure that Qatar is so keen to rebut. Is that now an official UN figure too? I suspect Qatar would be less fond of that prospect.
We don’t know that the Government of Qatar is intentionally spinning this to its advantage, or whether some of its weird international fan club have willfully got the wrong end of the stick, but next time someone doubts the figures, remember this: Qatar’s government is more than happy to stop people reporting the truth on any number of subjects, including conditions for workers. Until they allow independent investigation, and better still, rights for working people to raise these issues themselves, anything they say about worker deaths has to be taken with a hefty dose of cynicism. What’s more, every bit of effort they put into arguing the point is effort they’re not putting into fixing the problem.
Qatar remains under pressure for failing to take urgent and decisive action to prevent death, injury and forced labour affecting thousands of people travelling to the country to work on the infrastructure crucial to deliver the 2022 World Cup.
After years of campaigning by trade unions and other human rights organisations, over the winter Qatar brought in a new labour law which it claimed would abolish the restrictive kafala law – kafala, or sponsorship, is the system blamed for the appalling lack of rights enjoyed by migrant workers in the country, as it gave their bosses so much power over them that it was ownership in all but name.
Sadly, so far the new law appears to do little to protect workers.
Qatar fails first test
Amnesty International denounced the new law as doing nothing more that “scratch the surface” of the country’s labour problems. The ITUC called them “new labels on old laws”. At the heart of the problems lay the fact that employers could still prevent workers changing jobs for up to five years, and that it still gave them the power to block their employees’ departure from Qatar.
The slow-moving but authoritative International Labour Organisation, the UN agency dedicated to setting international labour standards and reviewing countries’ efforts to implement them, were equally unimpressed. Having given Qatar until this March to take serious steps to eliminate the forced labour made possible by kafala, its only concession to Law 21 was to give the Qataris more time to prove themselves. In short, the ILO is not yet satisfied that Qatar has done what it promised.
Focus on the Few
The best news of recent months was that the international construction union, BWI, had negotiated access to official world cup projects to assess health and safety, as well as judging the effectiveness of worker committees set up by Qatar to give workers on these projects the opportunity to raise concerns.
Meanwhile, an independent consultancy employed by Qatar World Cup “supreme committee” found some progress on these projects but also a raft of abuses that right required urgent attention, with workers on 18-hour days and others working five months without a single day off. This is despite the fact that world cup projects are supposed to be governed by a much higher standard of labour conditions (the workers’ welfare standard) than general construction in Qatar.
Although Impactt’s investigation and advice on fixing problems will hopefully mean the issues are addressed, it is sobering to note that the deal with the BWI and the Impactt monitoring cover less than 1% of all foreign workers in Qatar, hundreds of thousands of whom are building projects vital for the world cup.
Where is FIFA?
Meanwhile FIFA, who sparked this crisis when they neglected to consider basic human rights when awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, convened its independent Human Rights Advisory Board for the first time in March, and included detailed discussions on the potential for human rights clauses in the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup. In a bland and carefully worded statement, the committee notes that it was “essential to address the many critical issues that need further attention and effort,” while also welcoming “examples of positive action that FIFA is taking.”
FIFA have their annual Congress coming up in May, with new opportunities to press them over what they are doing to stop the human rights disaster for the 2022 tournament.
In our campaign film, Foul Play, we suggested that Qatar’s problem was not just the laws in place to make everybody play fair, but the fact that the referee was asleep on the job. In response to this, the kindest thing that could be said about Qatar’s activity in the last year is that it thinks the referee will spring into action just so long as they get the right laws.
Last year a High Level Mission to Qatar reported back to the ILO, detailing the findings of their visit at the end of 2016. The ILO’s governing body, formed from governments, workers and employers around the world, gave the gulf state one year to demonstrate progress towards eliminating the concerns in the Mission report, including instances of forced labour, lack of freedom of association and of movement (through the kafala system’s exit permit), poor health & safety and squalid accommodation, unpaid wages and the ability of workers to raise complaints and seek remedy from their employers.
The pernicious exit permit, in particular, shifts the balance of power so far away from the workers towards their employer it renders any attempt at providing legal protection pointless: while employers can – legally – trap their workers in Qatar as kafala allows, it’s unlikely that employees will risk incurring their wrath by raising a complaint. Nor, with unions outlawed, is there any way for people to raise their problems in a less personal (and vulnerable) way.
Qatar’s report to the ILO, however, was so determined to be considered happy news it may as well have been delivered by the stork. It announced the abolition of the kafala system and the exit permit, a new electronic wage payment system, new complaint mechanisms for workers and progression ending illegal recruitment fees that leave workers in debt for years. However, if there’s anything true in the report it appears to be buried deep within so much overoptimistic spin that there’s no way of telling fact from fiction.
In particular, it trumpeted the fact that the legislation brought in at the end of last year, known as Law 21, abolished kafala and the exit permit system. Since unions and human rights NGOs like Amnesty have known for months that this isn’t the case, Qatar has either started to believe its own publicity or it wanted to throw some titbits to its army of lobbyists to quote at anyone claiming kafala is still in force. However, workers can still be denied permission to leave by their employers, and the mysterious appeals system remains inscrutable, with no suggestion of on what grounds an appeal might be successful.
“The most outrageous claim in Qatar’s deceptive report to the ILO is that the notorious exit permit system has been repealed. This is a blatant lie – the truth is that workers still have to ask permission from their bosses to leave the country.”
Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary
Claiming that kafala, which basically gave employers ownership rights over workers lives, has been abolished because now employers ‘only’ have total control over workers’ lives instead is rather missing the point of why we wanted it gone in the first place.
An ITUC report challenged Qatar’s statement, and detailed several gaps between the rosy picture painted by Qatar and the reality on the ground. Workers remain unpaid, accommodation remains scandalously filthy and cramped, health & safety is a lottery and passports are still confiscated. Meanwhile, Qatar has provided no evidence of any company falling foul of the law for causing any of these abuses. Qatar’s government attempted to deflect criticism on worker safety with a slew of casualty figures that fly in the face of the few bits of available data it has been possible to extract from the country, suggesting that – for example – only an unlikely 0.06% of all admissions to casualty wards in Qatar are related to workplace injury, and clearly ignoring the 11 deaths and multiple injuries caused by a labour camp fire in 2016.
Illustrating their appalling lack of urgency, Qatar then boasted about a worker hotline that it first promised seven years ago. It also mentioned the deal brokered between the Qatar Supreme Committee (responsible for the 2022 World Cup) and international construction union BWI; while this arrangement is most welcome it benefits only 0.25% of migrant workers in Qatar. Meanwhile, attempts by multinational construction firms to make similar arrangements with BWI have been blocked by the government.
According to the ITUC, Qatar backed up its sunny-side-up report by carrying out an “unprecedented deployment of dozens of lobbyists at the Geneva meeting aiming to shut down any possibility of the UN body’s strongest compliance procedure being applied.” They clearly hoped to persuade the UN labour rights agency to give them a clean bill of health; they will have to try a lot harder.
As Sharan Burrow noted today, “This decision will also increase pressure on FIFA, which has pledged human rights respect in its major events after 2022, but so far failed to use its enormous leverage on Qatar to ensure real reform, and respect for international labour and human rights standards.”
As with previous debates on Qatar, there was broad agreement between the ILO’s Worker and Employer representatives on the need to keep the pressure on Qatar. The British government also supported the EU line of continuing the hold the threat of an investigation until Qatar can prove that it is really taking the action required to end forced labour and widespread abuse of rights. Qatar has been reminded that the only way to make its problems go away is to fix them.
Qatar’s new labour laws will not end abuse, warns Amnesty, and FIFA must act to force real change.
Hot on the heels of the deal between Qatar’s World Cup Supreme Committee and the international construction unions to allow the latter to keep an eye on workers building World Cup stadiums, comes the long-awaited centre piece of Qatar labour reform: Law 21, sometimes known as the abolition of the hated kafala sponsorship system and the country’s key defence in refuting allegations that it has been allowing the practice of forced labour in contravention of international standards and fundamental human rights.
With the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regularly criticising the country and giving it a 2017 deadline to show progress in eradicating modern slavery, Qatar had little choice but to take action. The abolition of kafala would go some way to doing that, and move the country from an outmoded system of employer “sponsorship” (one step removed from ownership) and to a modern system based on contract law.
However, as the law has evolved, concerns have been growing that for all the grand claims of reform, Law 21 might prove to be little more than a veneer to present the country’s labour laws in a better light, and provide little of real substance to transform the difficult lives of migrant workers and protect those at greatest risk of abuse.
Now an Amnesty International study has looked at what we know about the new law, and what it does to address the major concerns over the treatment of Qatar’s migrant workforce – that they’re trapped in the country and can’t change jobs, which leaves them vulnerable to squalid housing, low pay, dangerous working conditions and other serious abuses.
Amnesty’s analysis blows huge holes in Qatar’s claim that “Law No. 21 is a sweeping, significant reform.” On all the most serious abuses – in particular the exit visa which, despite promises to the contrary, is still very much part of Qatari law – Law 21 rearranges the furniture a bit but leaves workers vulnerable to abuse.
There may be good intentions at work, but they’re vague enough to allow the worst employers to continue the culture of control that puts workers in a powerless position. For months, campaigners have been trying to get clarity on the Law 21 criteria under which employers could veto their workers leaving Qatar.
Amnesty’s assessment sheds some light on it, but they fail to find the clear regulations that would reassure workers seeking to leave. Instead, the Government has said:
“Valid objections may include: a) reason to believe that the employee has committed fraud b) reason to believe that the worker is attempting to evade prosecution for a crime.”
As the study notes, this is a problem on two fronts: firstly, the use of the word “may” allows the authorities to accept any other excuses they feel in the mood to accept and secondly, it ignores the long history of employers in Qatar slinging mud at their workers to keep them in line. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report of 2014 noted that “often, when a migrant reports abuse by their sponsor, the sponsor retaliates by filing criminal charges against him or her.”
So not only might we find other reasons being considered valid to remove the basic human right for workers to leave, but nothing in the law protects workers from vexatious claims of wrong-doing, long used by bad Qatari employers to keep workers in line. As the ILO discussed in 2015, even workers registering official complaints in the labour courts could find themselves arrested for “absconding” (leaving employment without permission) or worse offences, with “insufficient cross-referencing by the authorities” to link the accusation with the attempt to lodge a complaint.
Elsewhere we find examples of progress undermined by the small print. Until Law 21, confiscation of passports was totally illegal under Qatari law and punishable by large fines – unfortunately, despite almost 90% of low paid workers reporting their passports being retained, no employers were ever prosecuted. Now the fines have gone up, but Law 21 brings in wiggle room: with written permission from the worker, the employer may place the passport in safekeeping. Given the continuing power imbalance, the chance of every piece of written permission being supplied voluntarily seems remote.
What the law clearly does not do is change the fundamental power dynamic to allow workers to escape abusive employment. As Amnesty notes, Qatars’ laws already allow them to block exit for those suspected of criminal activity or financial misbehaviour – the application of a default position of suspicion for all foreign workers is a bizarre and unnecessary collective punishment.
“Some migrant workers have told Amnesty International that they expect their lives to significantly improve after the new law comes into force. Their expectations seem unlikely to be realised.”
Instead, it looks again as if Qatar may be playing a PR game, which means ongoing abuse will be compounded by the crushing of the optimism of those hoping for better times. “Some migrant workers have told Amnesty International that they expect their lives to significantly improve after the new law comes into force. Their expectations seem unlikely to be realised,” warns the report.
The timing is also concerning. We’d like to have more faith, but with the ILO Governing Body due to examine Qatar’s progress in March, we foresee that “give us a chance, we only brought in the laws in December” will be used as an excuse for a lot of failures, and then arguments that they should be given another full year to show their effectiveness.
None of this means that the people who drafted the laws, and significant sections of the Government of Qatar, don’t intend for them to improve conditions for workers. Unfortunately it does suggest that, in order to get these laws past opponents whose interests were more closely aligned with the status quo, they have been drafted in such a way that the existence of the laws, in themselves, is no guarantee of minor improvements, let alone of genuine human rights. Rather than the fundamental rights migrant workers need to protect them, those workers will be at the whim of employers and officials; some sympathetic, some not, and with unions banned there’s no one else to take the workers’ side.
Fans of Qatar – yes, there’re people who spend their time on social media defending an unelected regime with a serious human rights problem and pronouncing that Qatar 2022 will be the best of all possible World Cups; don’t ask us why – will decry our lack of faith. But that lack of faith is directed specifically at these laws based on Qatar’s track record of implementation. I’m afraid to say it’s not unreasonable position.
We agree with Amnesty that: “Qatar’s government, its international partners, and institutions with global influence such as football’s world governing body FIFA and its sponsors, cannot and must not use this new law to claim that Qatar’s migrant labour problem has been solved.” Actions speak louder than laws.
What we remain at least a little excited about is the breakthrough last month by the BWI, the international construction union federation, to establish oversight of conditions for workers directly involved in stadium projects and to give the BWI access to speak to those workers. What Qatar needs is not new laws, but the willingness to open itself up to external, independent scrutiny and to allow the power balance between employers and workers to shift markedly towards the latter. We’ll put our faith in that.
Given Qatar’s hostility towards trade unions, this deal, which will see BWI involved in inspections and monitoring, as well as sharing its considerable knowledge of good health & safety practice, carries a significance that goes beyond the 30,000 workers expected to be involved in building Qatar’s stadia and could eventually help the hundreds of thousands working on related projects.
Although the Supreme Committee has generally been much more progressive than the rest of the country’s government, which continues to deny workers basic human rights, it has failed so far to effectively implement the “Workers Welfare Standards” (WWS) that it drew up to supposedly guarantee conditions on its projects. This deal with the BWI will be a chance to turn that around. If it does, the gap in treatment between those working inside each stadium and those working right outside it will become even more obvious and – hopefully – provide further impetus for wide reaching reform.
Perhaps most significantly, BWI will “review and assess” the worker welfare committees set up under the WWS in order to provide an opportunity to raise and resolve grievances in the absence of decent legal alternatives in Qatar. This would be the first time workers have had a chance to speak openly to a union organisation in Qatar.
It’s very early days, and there’s a lot of work to be done, but this is certainly the best news we’ve had so far on the campaign.
Last month, Playfair Qatar released our campaign video showing the unfairness and injustice at the heart of the push to get Qatar ready to host the 2022 World Cup.
Of course, as much as we hope the film gets the point across, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. If you want to know more about the problems raised in the film, here’s a further look at some of them.
“Thousands of workers are building all over the country to prepare”
Qatar’s population consists of around 300,000 Qataris and 2.2million foreign workers. Many of these workers have been brought in specifically to work on projects required to host the World Cup, including hotels and transport, as well as stadiums. In the year Qatar were awarded the World Cup hosting rights, the population doubled. The numbers continue to rise rapidly, with another half a million workers expected in Qatar this year.
Qatar’s World Cup bid was a fundamental part of its strategy to develop and grow, with the World Cup final planned to take place in a city, Lusail, that hasn’t even been built yet.
“To be ready for football’s greatest tournament”
Just as some of the development would have happened without the World Cup, though, the World Cup could not have happened without the development. And the deadline of 2022 puts additional pressure on construction companies. As FIFA’s human rights consultation Prof John Ruggie writes in his report on human rights:
“The pressure to meet deadlines increases as the event approaches [and] may heighten risks to workers’ rights where major construction is required, including to workers’ health & safety.”
By conflating the World Cup with their own development plans, the government of Qatar made the development of their country inherently more rapid and dangerous than it could have been, therefore FIFA – having awarded the tournament despite this – has responsibilities that go way beyond what happens on stadiums.
“If workers have to get hurt in the process, there’s no one to protect them”
Qatar has been routinely criticised, for example by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for the conditions in which its ‘guest’ workers work and live. Although the numbers are belatedly increasing, until recently Qatar had only 300 labour inspectors to check on its millions of workers. As well as the tragic fatalities, there are even more injuries, many of them serious, with workers reliant on their employers to access medical care.
Of death and injury, the ITUC predicts that 7,000 migrant workers will die across all projects in Qatar before the World Cup. They go on to say:
“Migrant workers are dying and getting injured in Qatar in the lead up to the FIFA 2022 World Cup. That fact is beyond doubt.
What’s harder to say exactly is the number of work-related fatalities, injuries, and illness, due to the Qatari government’s refusal to publish statistics or allow independent investigations into the reasons why a thousand fit young migrant workers are dying each year.”
Qatar’s labour courts, under-resourced and overburdened, can supply compensation for workers if their case is resolved, but employers hold all the cards. Workers cannot work while their case is examined, unless their own employer allows it. Nor can they return home. They are charged fees in excess of a month’s salary just to lodge a case. In many cases workers are forced to resort to borrowing from friends for food just to survive. In some cases the employers report the workers for absconding – leaving employment without their permission – and the workers are arrested and sent to the detention centre, where they can remain for months without representation. The authorities do not connect the allegation with the complaint made to the courts, and the employer is always believed.
Finally, workers are denied their fundamental human rights when it comes to protecting themselves. Unions for migrant workers are banned, and any strike action is usually crushed swiftly. Not only does Qatar fail to take action at the top to help workers, it denies them the means by which they could ensure their own safety.
“Laws in place… only enforced against one side”
Qatar’s willingness to use the law to deprive workers of protection is in direct contract to their unwillingness to make employers take responsibility. There are a number of laws in Qatar which, in enforced, would make conditions marginally less bad: laws exist against working at the hottest part of the day in summer and against confiscating passports (see below), but these hardly ever result in action by the authorities. Laws against overcrowding in workers’ dormitories are also flouted, contributing to the squalor of these frequently appalling accommodation sites that also suffer from lack of fresh water, poor sewage and inadequate ventilation.
Conversely, the state will arrest workers accused of absconding and detain or deport workers involved in union activity.
“Bosses can trap them in Qatar”
Qatar uses a ‘sponsorship’ system for foreign workers. Called ‘kafala’ it makes employers completely responsible for their workers. While in theory this gives employers responsibility to feed, house and protect their employees, in reality it means that workers are effectively owned by their bosses. They cannot change jobs or leave the country without permission, they have no right to bargain over pay or conditions: even workers’ residency papers are controlled by their employers, which means in some cases workers are essentially limited to life in workers’ accommodation and the construction sites.
In response to criticism, Qatar promised to abolish kafala. However, the legislation brought in does nothing to change any of these problems. Indeed, where previously you needed the approval of your employer to leave the country, now you need the agreement of both your employer and the government. Only those workers who were trapped by negligence (i.e. their own employers had absconded to avoid debts, leaving their workers stranded) will be helped, while rules forcing workers to stay with one employer for two years were actually made worse. Employers can now force workers to stay with them for five years.
“FIFA … the rights of workers”
Having bought a bad World Cup, FIFA has the responsibility to fix it. Under Sepp Blatter, FIFA refused to take any responsibility for the lives of workers, instead putting all the blame on the construction companies. Under Infantino, FIFA has instigated a “monitoring” regime that will check whether Qatar is living up to its own promises to give special treatment to stadium workers after an Amnesty Report found that conditions there were as bad as anywhere else in the country.
As Human Rights Watch said:
“By announcing a new body to protect workers, FIFA gets to look like they’re taking the issue seriously without having to put any pressure on the Qataris to actually take it seriously.”
Against the recommendation of Prof Ruggie, FIFA has already refused to use its influence to force Qatar to grant improved rights to workers in Qatar, abandoning its responsibility to take steps to protect the lives and human rights of the people delivering its own product, the 2022 World Cup, and giving Qatar comfort that it can proceed with business as usual.
“It’s a Rigged Game”
To make things worse, many workers arrive in Qatar already in debt to disreputable recruitment agencies. Again, charging fees from workers is illegal in Qatar and yet goes unpunished, leaving workers incredibly vulnerable. Although Qatar’s government says they have taken action, many workers still arrive in Qatar with debts to recruiters, and existing debts among the working population means thousands of workers have to do whatever their bosses say, including working in extreme danger, or risk destitution or detention.
Qatar’s propaganda in countries sending workers means that tens of thousands will keep arriving and falling into the same trap, in turn guaranteeing that Qatar can deliver on its promise to FIFA, while completely failing those doing the work.
“Underpaid and effectively owned”
Debt bondage is even more serious when workers have little to no chance of ever paying it off. Workers in Qatar are paid according to their country of origin, which means if they came from a poor country, their wages in Qatar will also be low. Investigations two years ago found people working in construction for the equivalent of only 45p on hour, trying to pay off debts of more than £600. To make things worse, workers are routinely promised around 30% more in pay than they actually get, but of course, once they arrive in Qatar there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it.
As stated above, kafala – even under ‘reforms’ – means that bosses have incredible power over workers. Not only can they stop them working for anyone else, they control their passports, their identify papers and hold them in debt bondage. No matter how outrageously workers are treated, they can’t even go home.
If you have no choice but to work, no control over your hours or conditions, aren’t allowed to leave your accommodation and don’t actually make any money, what does that make you?
“Thousands will be injured, and many will die”
7,000 migrant workers, mostly young, fit men, may lose their lives in Qatar before the World Cup. No matter what proportion of them are or aren’t working on facilities needed for 2022, FIFA runs the serious risk of a World Cup that cost the lives of thousands of men, and yet has consistently ruled out taking strong action against Qatar.
What more does it take?
“Football is meant to be the beautiful game”
FIFA has already trashed world football’s reputation over corruption, but this is even worse. If FIFA does nothing to force Qatar’s hand, football will be complicit in the deaths of thousands. If the London Olympics could be delivered with no deaths on site and only two on infrastructure, then Qatar – with a smaller population than London – should be able to build the World Cup without the deaths of hundreds and thousands.
Fans and players should have a voice in how their game is run. It’s time to tell FIFA that – as custodians of our game – we’re not going to let football be associated with death and exploitation.
“Let’s tell FIFA it’s time to play by the rules”
FIFA commissioned a report on human rights. Professor John Ruggie, a human rights expert formerly with the UN, produced a report with wide-ranging recommendations for future bids, but also for Qatar and Russia.
So far, FIFA have indicated they may take action to prevent this happening in the future but have explicitly ruled out intervening in Qatar.
In this excellent piece published in Newsweek, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives explains why FIFA’s latest promise is only masquerading as progress.
With six years to go until the opening whistle of the 2022 World Cup, preparations are moving at a feverish pace here in Qatar and will soon reach peak construction.
With a dozen stadiums to be constructed or revamped, Qatar’s World Cup, with an estimated $200 billion in infrastructure, will be the most expensive ever. The human cost is already the steepest ever, and unless FIFA and Qatar take urgent steps to reform now, risks climbing even higher.
“By announcing a new body to protect workers, FIFA gets to look like they’re taking the issue seriously—without having to put any pressure on the Qataris to actually take it seriously.”
The problem is that the stadiums, transit and infrastructure for the World Cup are being built not by the few hundred thousand citizens of this tiny but oil-wealthy emirate, but by the one million migrant workers who came here to discover that they are working in unsafe conditions—and that they can’t leave without the approval of their employers.
Unless the situation changes quickly, the 2022 World Cup will send a grim message for the millions of fans who attend, the more than a billion expected to watch and the corporate sponsors who invest in the World Cup: a football tournament is more important than the lives of the workers, largely from South Asian countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh, who are building stadiums and infrastructure.
Long hours, poor working conditions, and the country’s extreme heat provide the context for a problematic pattern of hundreds of fatalities attributed to “sudden death” or cardiac arrests, which the authorities have refused to investigate. In March, a report by Amnesty International—the organization’s third on this topic since 2013—called out FIFA’s “shocking indifference” to widespread abuses, including squalid living conditions.
Migrants in construction toil in heat up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in a workweek that is usually six days long, and sometimes seven. Workers typically pay exorbitant recruitment fees, and employers regularly take control of their passports when they arrive in Qatar. Many migrant workers say that their employers fail to pay their wages on time or in full.
Qatar’s kafala, or sponsorship, system ties the legal residence of migrant workers to their employer. The system also requires foreign workers to obtain exit permits from their sponsors. This gives employers the power to arbitrarily block their employees from leaving Qatar and returning to their home country—and makes it impossible for workers to complain of abuse without fear of reprisal. Qatar has yet to enact meaningful reforms to this labor system despite pledges to do so and years of sustained criticism.
As one of his last acts as FIFA president—and doubtless to help repair the reputational harm from the group’s corruption scandal—Sepp Blatter hired Harvard’s John Ruggie to put in place a policy on human rights. Mr. Ruggie is the architect of the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which require companies to take effective steps to avoid, mitigate and remedy human rights abuses linked to their operations. Ruggie issued a bluntly worded report in April that said: “The purpose of identifying human rights risks is to do something about them,” and attracted headlines by saying FIFA should “consider suspending or terminating” its relationship with World Cup hosts who fail to fix abuses.
In a sign international pressure is working, FIFA just launched a body to “oversee the treatment of workers on Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.”
But the problem in Qatar and on World Cup construction isn’t a lack of oversight. Stadium workers are already subject to supplementary protection on top of the local labor law, so this will be a third tier of protection. The problem remains a lack of political will to implement reforms and make protections fully effective. The greatest contribution FIFA can make is to help generate that political will by applying genuine pressure on the Qataris.
Unfortunately, FIFA’s new leader Gianni Infantino did precisely the opposite when visiting the country for the first time in late April. “I can’t see any reason why they won’t host 2022. They will host it,” Infantino said in Doha. By announcing a new body to protect workers, FIFA gets to look like they’re taking the issue seriously—without having to put any pressure on the Qataris to actually take it seriously…
Into the gap between rhetoric and reality stepped John Ruggie, the Harvard Professor and former assistant secretary general at the United Nations, who developed the very principles which FIFA had committed to uphold.
An advisory contract between FIFA and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where Ruggie teaches, was agreed as FIFA’s top leadership were arrested or deposed and while thousands of workers who are building the 2022 World Cup facilities and infrastructure are virtually imprisoned in the slave state of Qatar.
Forced to live in squalor with poor quality food and often inadequate amounts of clean water workers in Qatar are paid poor wages and often not paid for months on end. No worker can leave an unsafe or abusive work environment or even exit the country without the employer’s permission.
FIFA knew all of this when it ignored alleged corruption in the voting practice and awarded the World Cup to Qatar. They didn’t care and for five years have ignored any responsibility for demanding an end to the Kafala system of modern slavery and for ensuring the respect for human and labour rights that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights upholds.
FIFA stood by and watched the vital infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup including roads, rail lines, hotels, malls all be constructed or maintained by the use of men and some women who had no freedom, were denied fundamental rights and aretreated as less than human.
Ruggie’s straight talking language which has brought together the sometimes incompatible world of business and human rights has defined for FIFA’s elected officials, staff and member organizations exactly what human rights means.
“Internationally recognized human rights include rights to life and physical security, non- discrimination, rights to freedom of thought, expression and religion, freedom of assembly and of movement, rights to education and work, to family life and privacy, to food and water, freedoms from torture, slavery or forced labor, as well as rights to fair and decent working conditions, including freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.”
British companies and their Qatar-based subsidiaries are accused of confiscating passports, switching contracts, providing overcrowded accommodation and using kafala to trap workers in abusive conditions.
That’s the finding of a new investigation by the Guardian‘s Pete Pattison, who’s been one of the most active journalists in exposing the terrible conditions faced by workers in Qatar in advance of the 2022 World Cup.
The report, which spoke to workers from BK Gulf, co-owned by Balfour Beatty, and Gulf Contracting Company (GCC), co-owned by Interserve, shows that conditions under the auspices of British companies are little or no better than those faced by the rest of the construction workforce.
Balfour Beatty is one of the UK’s most famous construction companies, having been involved in the Docklands Light Railway, the Channel Tunnel, the Cardiff Bay Barrage and the current Crossrail project. Interserve is highly visible in the UK, running many contracted-out public services.
Neither firm can work independently in Qatar, as local laws say companies must work in partnership with a local company that owns 51% of the business. This does not reduce their responsibility to take effective steps to ensure that no abuse of human rights is found in their sub-contracting arrangements.
Conditions of debt bondage – where workers have paid so much in fees to secure work and then paid so little that they have no choice but to keep working no matter what conditions they face – were reported, as well as exploitation of kafala (the sponsorship law which gives Employers power over their workers’ movements) to keep workers from leaving the country. Together, the two abuses throw up the severe risk that workers are suffering forced labour, for which Qatar has been referred to the International Labour Organisation and given a year to eradicate.
Both companies responded that they were inspecting their supply chains to ensure that standards were upheld, but given the ease with which The Guardian’s team uncovered transgressions it seems that British companies are little better than the Qatari authorities when it comes to making sure that workers are properly protected: not surprising when the workers themselves are only asked for their opinion when the journalists are in town.
UK companies have a responsibility under the OECD Guidance for Multinational Enterprises to respect the right of workers to form or join a trade union and to bargain collectively. Trade union membership for migrant workers is outlawed by Qatari law, but there’s nothing to stop companies consulting workers and allowing them a collective voice. It’s high time British companies started setting the standards needed to deliver change.
The Guardian has also released this video showing migrant workers being excluded from parts of Doha and turned away from Qatari “family areas” – a reminder than the mistreatment of workers is not just about how they might die, but how they live.
Amnesty International has poured cold water on Qatar’s claims to be protecting workers on FIFA World Cup projects, exposing a litany of abuses faced by people refitting the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. As Amnesty put it: “For players and fans, a World Cup stadium is a place of dreams. For some of the workers who spoke to us, it can feel like a living nightmare.”
Furthermore, the report shows the unreasonable distinction Qatar is making between World Cup and “non-World Cup” projects.
The report, which looked at the experiences of two groups of workers over the course of the last year, finds that despite claims that World Cup workers were benefiting from special protection, the usual problems of squalid accommodation, passport confiscation, illegal recruitment fees and deceptive payment practices affected them whether working inside or outside a stadium construction site.
It also cites several examples of employers continuing to ruthlessly exploit the country’s restrictive kafala laws to trap workers in the country, including seven men working on the Khalifa Stadium denied the right to return to help their families in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal. This exploitation is being used to force workers to accept whatever other abuse is thrown at them. One worker told the researchers he’d bravely asked to go home because he hadn’t been paid. “The manager screamed at me saying ‘keep working or you will never leave!’”
Amnesty’s report points out that any company who uses this power to deny freedom of movement, for whatever reason, is denying a worker their human rights, even if it accords with local laws.
Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, charged with the delivery of the World Cup, launched its Workers Welfare Standard to, essentially, protect workers from the inadequacy of the country’s own laws, but the same failures of enforcement are making the initiative ineffective as anything more than a PR exercise. For example, as the report says, “all of the accommodation of workers who had worked on the Khalifa Stadium … that was inspected by Amnesty International in 2015 was in clear breach of the Workers’ Welfare Standards.” Despite this the Supreme Committee admits that “no World Cup contractor has been penalised for breaching the Welfare Standards.”
Failures by both the government of Qatar and the Supreme Committee to police their own standards and laws are compounded by the continuing restrictions on non-Qatari workers forming and joining trade unions. Qatar is essentially wedded to a top-down inspection system, excluding the voice of workers on the ground, while refusing to resource it with enough money, staff or political will to succeed.
Of course, many of the problems faced by these workers are illegal in Qatar, but the authorities remain “apathetic” in the face of the problem. Qatar repeatedly promises new laws to fix problems highlighted by its critics, but still hasn’t even managed to stop employers confiscating workers’ passports, something that has been illegal for years. In terms of kafala, the law needs to be completely abolished, not amended, so that employers have no power over their workers’ movements. Qatar has refused to consider this.
These proposed new laws have been Qatar’s key defence as it faces off against the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which visited the country earlier this year and also found workers stranded in the country, sometimes unpaid for months, as well as more evidence of passport confiscation and terrible living conditions. The ILO has given Qatar 12 months to meet demands for meaningful reform and proper enforcement. The ILO, a UN agency made up of governments, employers and worker representatives, sets international labour standards to which Qatar – as an ILO member – should conform, but of which the retention of kafala in particular puts it in breach.
“Workers covered by the Welfare Charter can exchange a friendly wave with those who are not”
Even if the Welfare Standards were to be better enforced, one of the other key findings of the report is the fine line between what counts as an official World Cup project (covered by the Standards) and what does not. One of Amnesty’s two groups of workers were preparing not the Khalifa Stadium, but the landscaped area right outside it, ludicrously denied official status. Qatar has been arguing about what constitutes World Cup construction with a pedant’s zeal for months, but it seems even the grounds surrounding an official venue are just too far away from the action for them, meaning that workers covered by the Welfare Charter can exchange a friendly wave with those who are not as they all prepare the country to host the competition. It also means that Qatar’s strident claims that no one has been killed on an official project needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
FIFA comes in for particular criticism for what the report describes as a total failure of due diligence – their responsibility to take steps to prevent abuse in the supply chain for their tournament. “FIFA’s continued failure to take any meaningful action on the issue of labour exploitation means that thousands of migrant workers involved in World Cup construction sites are at risk of exploitation,” says Amnesty, also calling on FIFA to start using its power to compel Qatar to remove employers’ control over workers’ moments to avoid the whole World Cup, and not just the construction, being riddled with human rights abuse.
FIFA has, as you might expect, rejected much of this criticism, claiming it “has been integrating human rights components in different aspects of its work, processes and activities for many years,” and conveniently ignoring the fact that whatever they were doing had demonstrably had very little impact on the experience of Qatar’s migrant workforce.
The report also demands that all companies working in Qatar, which includes some British companies, should follow a code of best practice rather than simply following Qatari law, including promising not to use kafala against their workers.