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Slave-state Qatar faces ILO investigation

The TUC's ILO delegate Sam Gurney proudly displays his Playfair Qatar sign.

Today, the UN’s workplace agency, the tripartite International Labour Organisation (ILO) voted to send a high level mission to Qatar to make an assessment of the real conditions faced by migrant workers: a major victory for the Playfair Qatar campaign. by Sam Gurney

Commenting after the vote, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“The ILO has blown the whistle on Qatar’s time wasting. Qatar’s government policy of flatly denying the abuse of workers won’t cut it anymore: now there will be an independent investigation.

“Workers in Qatar need this investigation soon, while the pressure ahead of the 2022 World Cup is still on.

“We must continue to work together to ensure that Qatar delivers the rights its workers deserve and show it is fit to host a showcase for world football.”

On 12 June 2014 I was proud to be one of 12 worker delegates at the ILO’s international labour conference who signed a letter calling on the ILO to launch a formal commission of inquiry into the systematic non-observance of ILO conventions 29 on forced labour and 81 on labour inspection. Despite Qatar’s denials the situation for migrant workers in Qatar continues to be appalling and at each subsequent ILO governing body (GB) we called for the investigation to be launched. However, to our great frustration, we were blocked by governments including, shockingly, those like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh whose citizens are amongst those dying in their hundreds but who in the face of a massive Qatari lobbying campaign parrot the line that vast improvements have taken place.

Today we returned to the issue at the ILO governing body. In an attempt to break the deadlock, the workers group called only for a ‘high level tripartite mission’ (less emotive than a full commission) to go to Qatar to assess independently whether the government’s claims are true, with a view to considering whether a commission should be authorised at our next meeting in March. Our spokesperson, Belgian trade union leader Luc Cortebeeck, clearly set out the reasons why Qatari claims in no way matched reality as he said ‘nothing has changed and we are not fooled.’ His employer counterpart (whilst not really commenting on conditions in Qatar and giving its government some credit for ‘reforms’) did at least support the call for a high level investigatory mission.

Qatar then hit back, their minister of labour effectively claiming his country was a workers’ playground and trying to account for remaining issues by citing ‘Qatari specificities’ which needed to be preserved. A succession of governments praised the Qataris for having dealt with all the issues we had raised (on evidence ranging from thin to non-existent) and demanded the call for a commission in inquiry be dropped altogether. This roll of dishonour included; Sudan, Bahrain, India, Algeria, Venezuela, UAE, Iran, Turkey, Thailand, Pakistan, Chad, Jordan, Mauritania and Bangladesh. On the other side, the Dutch (on behalf of the EU), the US and Canadians supported our calls for a mission.

At the conclusion of the discussion the workers group took the decision to call for a formal vote. This has not happened on the ILO governing body since the early 2000s when a vote calling for a commission of inquiry on Colombia was lost. Decisions are usually taken by consensus or by a clear majority emerging following interventions; in this case it was decided that the situation was simply too serious to allow things to drag on, even without a clear majority in the discussion. The scale of the Qatari lobbying operation has been on show since the start of the GB last Monday, with teams of government officials circulating around the meeting, pulling representatives out for one-to-one chats.

At the request of a number of governments the vote was postponed till after lunch and their lobbying operation was stepped up to fever pitch. Fortunately, it was to no avail. Despite a last minute attempt by some governments, including Japan, to move the vote to Thursday (under the guise of finding a consensus, but in reality to provide more time for arm twisting) the vote was held with the call for actions – including the high-level mission – receiving the support of 35 members, with 13 against and 7 abstentions. I’m pleased to report that my UK government and employer counterparts voted enthusiastically for action on this case.

We will now see what happens next: the ILO cannot force the government of Qatar to accept the high level investigation, but if they refuse to allow it entry their claims to have resolved all the issues we highlighted in our original complaint will look even more threadbare. The wider campaign to support the rights of migrant workers in Qatar will continue to gather pace and now it will be supported by the actions called for by the ILO governing body.

And just in case anyone was in any doubt about the terrible situation in Qatar, the International Trade Union Confederation has recently launched a new website, Qatar Exposed, which draws together the stories of those affected by kafala and the appalling health and safety situation.

This blog originally appeared on Stronger Unions

Qatar Exposed

(c) ITUC
The Death of Chirari Mahato - one of the stories in Qatar Exposed

We’ll get this up on its own page eventually, but here’s the ITUC’s excellent interactive film archive of recent Qatar investigations, Qatar Exposed.

With Qatar restricting access to the country’s construction workforce and the labour camps they live in, it’s been difficult to learn about the conditions in the country. With the help of brave locals, the ITUC have managed to put together a series of short films showing what it’s really like to be a worker trapped by Qatar’s oppressive kafala work-sponsorship system. Tales of injury, poverty and tragic death show the terrible flipside of Qatar’s glitzy World Cup dream.

Rather than giving us one long film, Qatar Exposed is a collection of short pieces and interviews that you can navigate round in any order you want. There are over 20 stories, allowing you to appreciate not only the horror and sadness of some people’s experiences, but also the awful fact that these are fare from isolated cases.

Qatar wants us to check our facts – it’s time they let us #BAD2015

Qatar needs to let the inspectors in
Edited for size

Next month Qatar has a chance to put its disputed record on workers’ rights to the test

When Zaha Hadid, architect of Qatar’s under-construction Al Wakrah football stadium, lashed out at the BBC last month, it exposed the increasingly frayed narrative thread of the 2022 World Cup and its controversial hosts. Clumsily accused on the Today programme of presiding over 1,200 deaths just on her stadium, Hadid railed against the line of questioning and insisted “there’s not a single problem in our stadium in Qatar…check your facts.” The BBC, apologising, kept its nerve enough to say “we are happy to accept there is no evidence of deaths at the main stadium site,” which is not quite the same as taking her word for it.

This, however, was sound and fury that signified nothing. Had Sarah Montague asked the right question – how do you feel about your involvement in a country which demonstrably allows the abuse of workers and has allowed hundreds to die since it won the right to host the tournament your stadium will be used in? – Hadid could still have retreated to her official position: no workers have died on my stadium, or on any other stadium: “Check your facts.”

Check your facts. The problem with this counter attack is that it asks the impossible. Qatar’s increasingly secretive approach to its problems means that checking whether workers really are suffering even on the high profile World Cup stadiums, let alone on the billions of pounds-worth of associated infrastructure necessary to host the tournament, is a difficult and potentially dangerous process. Qatar not only does not release official statistics on worker deaths, it barely even keeps any. To discover the detailed truth of what befalls construction workers from the 1.7million strong migrant population would involve on-the-ground research – something increasingly risky as Qatar’s security forces clamp down on media and human rights organisations’ attempts to speak to workers and see the conditions they face.

Qatar’s strategy appears to be clear: protest the country’s innocence against all charges and challenge their critics to prove wrong-doing, while controlling access to the “facts.” Anyone accusing Qatar’s labour laws of allowing death, destitution and desperation can be met with the same smug denial, “prove it!”, while throwing everything possible in the path of those trying to do so.

When British researchers Krishna Upadhyaya and Gundev Ghimire were arrested, it was days before Qatar admitted it had done so. Protestors outside Qatar’s London Embassy made it abundantly clear that the game was up, and shortly afterwards the government admitted having snatched them from the streets. After ten days in solitary confinement, and having had no access to a lawyer or diplomatic contact for most of that time, the men were freed. Krishna, once safely back in London, was able to describe what it was that Qatar had been so keen to hide. It is grimly amusing that Qatar terrorised these human rights campaigners in windowless cells because it was worried they were making the country look bad.

Qatar’s next strike was against the media, arresting and interrogating a German film crew before deleting the footage it had gathered. Then a BBC film crew, having been followed by the security services for days, found themselves locked up and facing hostile interrogation, again without legal or diplomatic assistance. Amnesty’s Gulf migration expert Mustafa Qadri openly suspects an attempt “to intimidate those who seek to expose labour abuse in Qatar”.

In these three cases all were safely released in the end, but they had the advantage of citizenship of important European states. Imagine how much more terrifying it must be for the workers who want to tell their stories, and for the locals that work bravely to put researchers in touch with them. We shouldn’t have to ask them to take these risks.

“If Qatar really is innocent, it’s like a man with an annual rail pass refusing to show it to a ticket inspector and just repeatedly shouting “I have a ticket!” very loudly until the transport police arrive.”

Qatar cannot be allowed to rebuff criticism while employing Cold War levels of paranoia and secrecy. If it really is, as it repeatedly claims, doing everything it could possibly be expected to do to live up to its international responsibilities to protect its workers, then its refusal to allow scrutiny makes no sense.  If Qatar really is innocent, this would be like a man with an annual rail pass refusing to show it to a ticket inspector and just repeatedly shouting “I have a ticket!” very loudly until the transport police arrive.

If this is all a terrible misunderstanding, then help is at hand! In November, the International Labour Organisation, the UN’s workers’ rights agency, will again discuss sending a high level mission to Qatar to find out what’s really happening. If Qatar is so proud of its track record, it should welcome the mission with open arms. Oddly enough Qatar has opposed the mission up to now and – somehow – managed to persuade enough foreign governments to do the same, including those of the very countries sending workers. Now is the time for it to embrace the offer as a chance to resolve this dispute definitively: the ILO says you’re doing good, we don’t have a campaign. The ILO says you’re doing bad, their experts will help you do good instead. What, exactly, is the downside?

This is too serious for this ridiculous charade to go on any longer. Thanks to reports like DLA Piper’s, and statistics from the Indian and Nepalese embassies, we know that death, injury, poverty, debt bondage, incarceration and physical abuse are a daily reality for thousands of workers denied the right to go home. And we know that Qatar has yet to enact one single reform to its system to deal with any of these things.

Qatar wants us to check our facts. We’re ready. Let us in.

Qatar’s worker reforms at end of rainbow disappear again


It’s slowly dawning on us, here at Playfair Qatar, that the Gulf state hasn’t really hired London’s Portland Communications to do its PR, but has in fact engaged Derren Brown. The latest disappearance of what appeared to be a tangible piece of legislation is certainly worthy of the master trickster, who once made someone believe the sun had disappeared.

Of course, we must make it clear that Mr Brown is not, and has never been in the employ of the Qatari government, but their strategy of mind games, distractions and sleight of hand is getting worthy of its own TV series. The latest grand deception involves a new law that keeps almost being introduced, and then disappears just as it is due to be implemented. The law, intended to compel companies to pay their workers electronically (and therefore make it easier to check that they have paid them at all) was originally slated to arrive earlier this year, then delayed to this week to give companies a chance to adapt. Now, just as it was to appear on Qatar’s books, it’s gone again, like the crock of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Not fussed? A law about electronic wages doesn’t seem like the biggest one to get excited about, and you’re right – it isn’t. But it was about the only helpful reform that genuinely appeared likely to turn up this year, and it was also a major plank of the country’s (somewhat unsuccessful) self-defence at the International Labour Organisation as it got criticised for allowing forced labour.

Add to that the Godot-like absence of the promised reform of kafala (the sponsorship law that turns workers into the property of their employers and keeps them trapped in the country) that has been just around the corner since early 2014, and it all adds up to a “will they / won’t they” storyline of such blatant teasing that it would make Moonlighting blush.

Mustafa Qadri, the Qatar specialist at Amnesty, suggests that Qatar is trying to buy some time. If that’s true, and with the World Cup still seven years away, we can probably expect to see more and more blatant baloney waved in front of us and then snatched away at the last minute.

With the 2022 hosts clearly intent on playing silly games while their construction workers suffer and die, attention has to turn back to FIFA to demand they intervene and force Qatar to keep its word. Unfortunately, it’s well known that FIFA has its own problems – that’s why we’re backing the ITUC‘s call for an independent reform commission into football’s international governance. New FIFA Now is hosting a petition calling on sponsors to demand such a commission – please sign, as the more pressure FIFA comes under, the more likely they are to take firm action on workers’ rights.

In the meanwhile, keep spreading the word. If Qatar is trying to outlast us, it will fail. Thousands of lives can still be saved if reforms are not only promised, but delivered and enforced. If you want to volunteer to help us get in touch via

Ashington Football Club host TUC rally in support of Qatar World Cup workers

England great Steve Harmison tells Qatar what to do

(England cricket legend and Ashington FC manager Steve Harmison joined the protest)

The Northumberland club hosted a rally in support of a campaign led by a national trade union the TUC ahead of its match with Penrith

says the Chronicle Live

A non-league football club in Northumberland has backed a campaign to raise awareness of alleged abuses of workers preparing Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.

Northern League side Ashington Football club on Tuesday night hosted a rally as part of the TUC union’s nationwide Playfair Qatar campaign… [read more]

At the summit: fans keen to support FIFA reform

SKINS Chair Jaimie Fuller is campaigning with the ITUC for an independent FIFA reform commission.

There wasn’t time to answer all the questions from the floor. The fans got stuck in to our panel at the football Supporters’ Summit today, where the Football Supporters’ Federation had invited Playfair Qatar to talk about FIFA reform and – of course – the Qatar World Cup. With us were former MP and sports campaigner Tom Greatrex, and our old mucker Jaimie Fuller of SKINS, with whom we launched the “Hypocrisy World Cup” sponsor campaign earlier this year and who has been working Sharan Burrow and the ITUC supporting the Save FIFA campaign.

The summit, with well over two hundred fans in attendance, is the annual get together of FSF members and those of their companion online fan group Supporters Direct. Launching the conference with a panel on FIFA reform turned out to be extremely zeigeisty, as the ITUC and SKINS revealed last night that Coca Cola had back their call for an independent FIFA reform commission (as reported by Stronger Unions yesterday).

Jaimie laid out the plans for the commission, and the kind of reforms might be implemented. Of great interest to those present was the suggestion that fans should elect members of the FIFA executive, and that 20% of the votes for President should come directly from fans, with another 20% from players. New FIFA Now and the ITUC hope that an international figure like Kofi Annan (or someone equally acceptable to the footballing world outside the US and Europe) might be persuaded to undertake leading the commission.

Lynsey Hooper, chairing, kept the conversation flowing and brought in questions from the audience, from the conference’s Twitter followers and also threw in a few of her own. One question from the floor expressed doubts that anything can be achieved, but Tom Greatrex, who describes himself as “recovering politician”, remains passionately engaged in football reform and says he sees a genuine opportunity for change that should not be missed. FIFA, it was agreed by most, is rocking on its heels: it’s now or never.

Lurking behind the technical talk on FIFA reform, however, was always Qatar. The questions came back repeatedly: should there be a boycott? Can anything actually change? Are some opponents of Qatar really just anti-muslim/anti-arab? What can fans actually do to help?

I was privileged to able to address these questions. It’s strange for what could be portrayed (simplistically) as an “anti-Qatar World Cup” campaign to say this, but we don’t want a boycott or a removal of the cup. Yet. What we want is an ultimatum and a clear timescale within which Qatar has to fix its labour and human rights deficiencies or else face the consequences. A recent investigation found around 80% of Qataris in favour of their kafala system, which keeps workers in the total power of their employers. However, that survey didn’t ask them: what would you rather give up, kafala, or the World Cup?

Things can change in Qatar, but it would take years for progress to happen without external pressure. That’s why we’re backing the FIFA review, in the expectation that they will get tough on their 2022 hosts and force them to make that choice. Because, in many ways, we want Qatar to have the World Cup. If they reformed their treatment of workers and their respect for human rights, it would be an astonishing demonstration of the power of football to effect change. We’re not out to bash Qatar – we just want to see decent treatment of human beings, no matter where they are from.

Fans are the key to this. The financial structures of football rest on the commercial incentive of keeping fans excited, and spending. They underpin everything, and are taken for granted by almost every football body from local club management to FIFA, through hiked ticket prices and ever changing kids’ club strips. But through club fan groups and the FSF they are increasing their campaigning power and starting to achieve results. We hope that by lending their support to Playfair Qatar, by joining the campaign and boosting its visibility in the world of football, that together we might make a difference in Qatar too.


Abdes Ouaddou, flanked by UNISON members, says

Abdes Ouaddou, the Moroccan footballer who found himself a victim of kafala when his Qatari club stopped paying him and refused to let him leave the country when he protested, has been a tireless campaigner against the system ever since. For all his own problems, it is the fate of those workers still in Qatar that concerns him, from construction workers preparing the country to host the 2022 World Cup, to the exploited aircrew of Qatar Airways.

Abdes has set up a SumofUs petition to ask Barcelona to end its deal with the state owned Qatar Airways unless they improve their treatment of workers.

As Abdes himself says:

Eventually I was able to leave Qatar, but the migrant women who work for Qatar Airways don’t have that same luck.

The women who work for Qatar Airways face an extremely grim reality: cabin crew are being exploited, imprisoned without charge, forcibly confined on company premises and automatically sacked if they become pregnant. These abuses are an everyday event not only in Qatar Airlines but in the Qatari national employment system.

Right now, Qatar Airways sponsors one of the most famous football clubs, the Barcelona Football Club. Barcelona’s millions of fans see the team as “more than a club”, revered not only for the quality of its players — like Neymar, Andrés Iniesta and of course, Lionel Messi — but for its allegiance to ethics, fairness and social justice. That’s why we’re asking the world’s most respected football club to cut ties with the airline until workers conditions improve.

Qatar’s national employment system, kafala, is cruel and brutal. Employers are allowed to prevent workers from leaving the country, even if they mistreat workers. The Qatar Airways CEO even said so himself, he “doesn’t give a damn” about workers rights.

My message to the sporting world, Barcelona and FIFA: we cannot legitimize a company that exploits thousands of vulnerable workers. It is against the values of the sport. We need to drop Qatar Airways as a sponsor.

Please support Abdes’ petition.

Qatar’s council cancels kafala changes

Playfair Qatar's message

Qatar’s failure to push through its long mooted reforms to the insidious kafala system has left the country’s attempt to portray itself as a slow moving but sincere reformer in tatters.

In May 2014, Qatar promised to abolish kafala, the sponsorship system that ties workers to employers and leaves them unable to change jobs or even leave the country with that employer’s express permission. Since this power is often used to override what existing workers’ rights exist in Qatar, the main demand from campaigning organisations, from Amnesty International to the ITUC, was for its immediate removal.

Qatar’s proposed response fell a long way short of what those organisations demanded, but the reforms just about qualified as “better than nothing”, and at the least could be used as a gauge of Qatar’s seriousness when it came to easing its iron grip on migrant workers’ freedom.

Over the following months, Qatar provided regular excuses for the failure to deliver. Although the Emir himself was “personally hurt” by the plight of migrant workers, the Minister of Labour, Abdulla al-Khulaifi, said that Qatar was “moving as fast as the system allows” and that it would “take time as in any other country in the world.”

Earlier this month, the kafala reforms were the centrepiece of Qatar’s defence at the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO committee dedicated to examining breaches of international labour standards was investigating Qatar for alleged forced labour.  In response, Qatar pointed to the draft law as evidence of progress. Only weeks later, even this half-hearted reform has proved to be a hollow promise.

Next up is Qatar’s pledge to introduce a new law requiring employers to pay their workers electronically to combat the abysmal record of non-payment of wages. It’s possible that this one might actually slip onto the statute books, if only because – unlike the changes to the exit visa – this law would require active enforcement by the government before it inconvenienced businesses, not something on which Qatar has a particularly strong track record.

If the Shura council, an appointed body with strong business representation, really are the stumbling block to reform, Qatar could still proceed at pace to properly enforce existing laws and resource both its courts and its labour inspection system without any further legislation. If it fails to “play by the rules” – even its own ones – we will know for certain that Qatar never had any intention of ending the appalling abuse of its workers.

The fight for workers’ rights knows no borders

Playfair Qatar

Playfair Qatar is the British TUC’s contribution to the global campaign seeking better lives and internationally recognized – properly enforced – workers’ rights for Qatar’s desperate migrant workforce.

We are very proud of our role in the Playfair 2012 alliance which saw not only an incredibly safe London Olympics, but also unprecedented agreements by suppliers to ensure that workers’ rights were respected in their supply chains, no matter where in the world they were working. Qatar may not be on our doorstep like London 2012, but while a love of football knows few national borders we still have some responsibility. Britain gave the world football, as well as trade unions… [read more]


This article first appeared on Progress ( on 8 June

Tartan Army calls on Qatar to Play Fair this Friday

Are you going to be in Edinburgh on Friday evening? Know anyone who will be? We need people who care about the exploitation being suffered by migrant workers in Qatar to help us protest at the inaugural ‘Qatar Airways Cup’ taking place at Easter Road. Enjoy the game, but make your voice heard!

The Scottish Football Supporters Association and Playfair Qatar are calling on Scotland supporters to express their support for workers building Qatar’s 2022 World Cup in advance of Scotland’s friendly with the Gulf state. Before the match the Tartan Army will have the opportunity to do their part in raising awareness of the serious abuse of the workers making Qatar’s World Cup possible. Supporters groups and trade unionists will gather before the game to get their message across to fans and make their objection known to the SFA.

Simon Barrow of the Scottish Football Supporters Association says:

“We’ve been contacted by an increasing number of Scotland fans from all over the country, expressing concerns about Scotland hosting Qatar. The Tartan Army have earned a reputation as the best fans in the world and they have a keen sense of fair play so we want to provide them with an opportunity to do their bit to take a stand on this issue.”

Since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup its serious abuse of migrant construction workers has been well documented. Hundreds of young migrant workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan die every year in its construction sector, many from unknown circumstances or cardiac arrest and hundreds more will die if Qatar doesn’t play fair and make serious reforms. The International Trade Union Confederation has called Qatar “a slave state”, Human Rights Watch says its labour system facilitates trafficking and forced labour, and Amnesty International recently described Qatar’s proposed labour reforms as “a PR stunt”.

The STUC, UNISON and Unite will be supporting Friday’s actions, which will be complemented by a social media campaign, and the TUC’s Playfair Qatar campaign is backing the action. Football should not be run counter to the moral compass of its fans. Qatar has shown a complete disregard for the well-being and dignity of its workforce, and the SFA should express its concerns, especially since this is going to be an annual fixture.

Speaking ahead of the game on Friday in Edinburgh, STUC General Secretary Grahame Smith said:

“Football should be a force for good in world; instead we are seeing the beautiful game marred by controversy and corruption. The situation in Qatar cannot go on. If the match on Friday was a World Cup ‘22 game 62 workers would have died to stage it.”