As wealthy Gulf states face off over long simmering diplomatic differences, foreign workers in both countries are at risk of bearing the brunt of the dispute.
An ongoing row in the Gulf over Qatar’s alleged links to terrorist groups, with the wealthy nation blockaded by a group of neighbours led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is in danger of causing a humanitarian crisis for thousands of foreign workers trapped in the region by the repressive “kafala” sponsorship system.
Foreign workers in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are subject to controls on their movement, with employers and government able to block them from going home.
In the wake of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, the government has responded with a widespread cancellation of exit visas, leaving workers to face the ever-growing cost of living as sanctions slash the availability of basic foods.
While Qatari citizens and some wealthy Western workers will be able to sit tight for a while, many workers, such as those employed in the massive construction effort surrounding the 2022 World Cup, can be paid as little as £55 per week, with no chance of riding out an economic storm.
The first warnings signs came when workers accompanying Qataris in Saudi Arabia were trapped after their employers were forced to leave. No one is quite sure which of the two countries is most responsible for the situation, but with both operating exit visas requirements under their versions of kafala, workers can suddenly find themselves – through no fault of their own – completely stuck and unable to earn any money to keep themselves alive.
Over the last few years, campaigns by unions and human rights groups have slowly pushed the government of Qatar into limited reforms to protect workers, but few have been viewed by campaigners as going far enough. Some of the best progress has been reserved for the thousands of workers building World Cup stadiums, after the international building workers’ union (BWI) struck a deal with the cup organisers to inspect the construction work and keep in regular contact with workers’ committees.
But this latest crisis threatens even that glimmer of hope, as the government seems at best oblivious to, and at worse uncaring of, the impact on its vast population of foreign workers. Qatar is a bad enough place to work – it’s a worse place to be workless and trapped. Whether temporarily or (preferably) permanent, it’s time for kafala’s exit visas to be scrapped.
The TUC has written to the Foreign Secretary urging him to press both Qatar and Saudi Arabia to remove exit visa restrictions and prevent working people becoming the real victims of the dispute.
(this blog was originally published on the TUC’s “Touchstone“)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.