In 2014, the TUC campaigned to draw attention to the appalling situation faced by migrant workers in Qatar tasked with building the infrastructure necessary to host the 2022 World Cup. Working with football fan groups, our campaign – Playfair Qatar – argued that, if urgent action wasn’t taken, the Qatar World Cup would be built on the blood and misery of thousands of workers.
In 2017, a much bigger campaign than ours, by the International Trade Union Confederation, made an incredible breakthrough in negotiations with the Government of Qatar. Qatar would urgently revise its labour laws, improving health & safety, introducing a minimum wage and ending the abusive sponsorship system (“kafala”) that gave employers control over almost every aspect of their workers’ lives.
The promises amounted to most of our campaign asks. So Playfair Qatar was paused, its last public statement asking the question, “have we won?”
On the eve of the World Cup, eight years after we first started talking about the terrible conditions faced by Qatar’s international workforce, we wanted to know: did we?
The answer is, of course, complicated. And it depends who you ask.
“Qatar’s system was still chewing up and spitting out workers, leaving them burdened with enormous debts”
There is no doubt that – belatedly, at least – Qatar, under pressure from the ITUC and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has repaired its terrible labour laws with unprecedented speed. Legally speaking, the landscape faced by workers applying the finishing touches to the World Cup infrastructure is utterly different to the one faced by Qatar’s original workforce of trapped and coerced migrants.
From that perspective the news is good. No progress was possible in Qatar while its laws not only allowed extreme labour abuse, but actively enabled it. The concessions won by the ITUC are absolutely vital to protecting Qatar’s workers.
But labour laws are only as good as their enforcement, and the ability of workers to seek justice and compensation for their abuse. And we were hearing a lot of reports from other campaigning organisations, many of whom we had worked alongside for Playfair Qatar, telling us that the picture on the ground did not reflect the progress on Qatar’s statute books.
And, although this report focuses on worker’s rights, we also have deep concerns about women’s and LGBT+ rights, as well the harassment and imprisonment of journalists and bloggers.
So, the TUC sent a researcher out to Qatar to meet with workers and find out their stories. What they told us was that, for them and many of the people they knew, the Qatari system was still chewing up and spitting out workers, leaving them burdened with enormous debts.
They told us that kafala’s legacy lived on in overmighty employers controlling their workers, and that they stayed or left Qatar at those employers’ whim.
And they told us that trying to fix or get compensation for these problems remained difficult, expensive and could take years.
Two things appear to be true, and they are not mutually exclusive. Thanks to global campaigning, using the World Cup as leverage, the typical situation for workers in Qatar is stronger than it was eight years ago. But it is also true that, as we come to the final few weeks of the power of that leverage over Qatar, workers are still paying a shockingly high price to deliver the most expensive World Cup in history.
After years of campaigning, in which Playfair Qatar and its supporters played their part, Qatar appears to have done the right thing. In a potentially ground-breaking deal, the Government of Qatar has agreed wide-ranging reforms of its reviled kafala system – indeed, almost four years after they promised its abolition, it seems kafala’s time is finally over.
The reforms include measures to end the worst abuses in the country. A minimum wage will end the race-based system of payments that discriminated against workers from poorer countries. Crucially, employers will lose control over their employees’ right to leave the country, removing a much-abused power over workers’ lives. The government will also register all contracts to prevent the scam where workers are duped into low-skill, low pay jobs by employers offering them something better and then switching contracts on arrival.
With these abuses dealt with, serious progress on making Qatar’s construction sites safer can be made.
We have no doubt that the current regional dispute tipped the balance here, but our pressure made this decision possible. Keeping workers’ rights so firmly in the spotlight made it the most obvious monkey for Qatar to shake off its back. Now countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, having used this issues in their own propaganda war, need to take a long, hard look at their own labour laws.
This time last year, the BWI – the global construction union federation – made a deal that showed the Qataris that the international unions were a potential ally, not a threat. Although there is so much more still to do, BWI inspections of stadium sites helped raise the standards and increase local understanding of international practice; conditions away from World Cup stadia sometimes remain in need of urgent intervention.
“[Our] conditions have been met, and we congratulate the Emir and Qatar’s Labour Minister for their commitment to modernise their industrial relations system,” Sharan Burrow, ITUC
The international coalition of campaigns – including the hard-hitting work of the ITUC in public and its less obvious negotiating behind the scenes, but also the excellent research from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and an array of Guardian journalists – appears to have succeeded in the unlikeliest of missions. Qatar, with one of the most rotten human rights records in the world, has suddenly signed up to a series of reforms that will elevate rights for workers above all its regional rivals.
Through Playfair Qatar, you have done your bit to support the ITUC’s efforts. What is clear from this deal is just how much the constant pressure over conditions for workers, especially in the context of the World Cup, was hurting Qatar. It wanted its moment of footballing glory to burnish its standing in the world, not burn it down. Campaigns like Playfair Qatar, and others around the world, firmly establishing a connection between the 2022 FIFA World Cup and modern slavery, made it absolutely clear that they wouldn’t get the glory unless they made concessions.
It’s not Utopia, but it may no longer be purgatory for workers.
In the fight to fix the abuses of human rights, Qatar’s biggest problem was its inability to open up. The control freakery of the government made it insensate to the wisdom of working with international partners. As well as the legal changes that could protect workers, it is the potential for openness that brings the greatest cause for optimism. A dedicated International Labour Organisation (ILO) office in a country that tried to block a high-level ILO mission just last year is a major step forward. So too is a legal tweak that will make it perfectly acceptable for companies to make deals with global union federations, and there’s a promise of worker committees – including elected reps – in every workplace, too. Qatar’s workers may not have the full freedom to organise their own unions – yet – but they will, for the first time, be able to access union support and advice, and we should expect to see campaigning shifting to putting pressure on firms profiting from Qatar’s construction frenzy to make such deals with global unions.
It was always in Qatar’s interests to do this: it’s taken them too long to see it for themselves, but the shift is welcome. To make (yet) another Schrödinger’s Qatar joke, until we observe their compliance or otherwise they are simultaneously doing the right thing and spinning us a line, but the scale of the promises is so great it’s hard to see them wriggling out of them this time even if they wanted to. Enlightened self-interest was always going to be the only way to get real change. Qatar’s self-interest was never in doubt; it is, perhaps, at last enlightened.
We think that Qatar means it this time; the fact that we have to say “this time” is why we won’t be going away just yet. There are almost 2 million foreign workers in Qatar who still don’t have the right to join a union, and are reliant on international pressure to get access to their own human rights. But – again assuming the promises are kept – what’s different now is that we will be able to urge the Government of Qatar to do better, and not simply demand it stops being the worst. It might seem like a small distinction, but it has the potential to be the start of something huge.
Those Promises (via the ITUC)
Employment contracts will be lodged with a government authority to prevent contract substitution, ending the practice of workers arriving in the country only to have their contract torn up and replaced with a different job, often on a lower wage.
Employers will no longer be able to stop their employees from leaving the country.
A minimum wage will be prescribed as a base rate covering all workers, ending the race-based system of wages.
Identification papers will be issued directly by the State of Qatar, and workers will no longer rely on their employer to provide their ID card without which workers can be denied medical treatment.
Workers’ committees will be established in each workplace, with workers electing their own representatives.
A special disputes resolution committee with a timeframe for dealing with grievances will be a centerpiece for ensuring rapid remedy of complaints.
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.
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…