At the summit: fans keen to support FIFA reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qatar’s council cancels kafala changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tartan Army calls on Qatar to Play Fair this Friday

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

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

Simon Barrow of the Scottish Football Supporters Association says:

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

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

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

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

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

Qatar 2022: Will VISA statement prove costly for Sepp Blatter’s FIFA?

On Monday, the TUC’s Playfair Qatar campaign joined forces with an eclectic group of campaigners. The ITUC, New FIFA Now and SKINS Official Non-Sponsor, all with a track record of speaking out against  the horrible conditions faced by workers preparing Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, united to demand that the World Cup’s sponsors called on football’s governing body FIFA to force through the radical change needed to save thousands of lives.

Now that the World Cup will be played in winter, avoiding the deadly heat that would have laid footballers low, and because – for the moment at least – corruption allegations are hard to prove, attention is finally being directed at what was always the most serious flaw in Qatar’s World Cup plan. Its vast army of indentured labourers, 1.4m strong at the last count, suffer from horrific working and living conditions.

There’s no escape from the dangerous sites and disgusting accommodation, because Qatar’s kafala law puts them utterly at the control of their employer. They can’t leave for another job, or even leave the country, without the express permission of their boss, who has to sign an exit visa before they’d be allowed to travel. No matter what the worker is trying to escape from, be it months of no pay, illegal long hours, lack of access to clean drinking water, revolting sanitation or even physical abuse, they have to accept that even if they went to Qatar’s labour courts and won, they could still be punished by a vengeful employer who can stop them leaving.

The result is a construction industry losing lives at the rate of at least 40 every month, based on figures from India and Nepal alone.

The World Cup’s major sponsors will be paying huge amounts to be associated with the tournament, and the unfolding human rights scandal has the potential to be sponsorship kryptonite.

Coca Cola, VISA, McDonalds and Adidas in particular, have strongly worded corporate social responsibility policies. Designed to eradicate abuse in their supply chain, these admirable policies ban forced labour, withholding of wages and physical abuse, while committing the companies to upholding the values of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a document that enshrines the rights of workers to join unions.

Monday’s team up between unions, businessmen and politicians – the ITUC’s Sharan Burrow, SKINS CEO Jaimie Fuller and Conservative MP Damian Collins, from New FIFA Now, sought to highlight the gap between brands’ policies and their ongoing financial support for “the Hypocrisy World Cup”.  With the entire construction industry of Qatar reliant on a trapped workforce that has to put up with whatever conditions are offered to them, they are clearly financially enabling a vast forced labour problem, as well as seeking to profit by association with a glamorous event (in the world’s richest state!) based on poverty wages, slum housing and a deadly, poorly regulated health & safety system.

After two days of bad publicity and customers emailing their CEOs, we’ve seen the first positive responses. VISA have issued a public statement on their website, saying:

“We continue to be troubled by the reports coming out of Qatar related to the World Cup and migrant worker conditions.  We have expressed our grave concern to FIFA and urge them to take all necessary actions to work with the appropriate authorities and organizations to remedy this situation and ensure the health and safety of all involved.”

Is this the first step in a movement that could force FIFA to abandon its policy of mixing a denial of responsibility? Shortly afterwards, Coke gave journalists a considerably more caffeine-free statement:

“The Coca-Cola Company does not condone human rights abuses anywhere in the world. We know FIFA is working with Qatari authorities to address specific labor and human rights issues. We expect FIFA to continue taking these matters seriously and to work toward further progress.”

Although Coke’s statement gives FIFA more credit than they deserve, it’s an unexpectedly fast reaction to our pressure and opens the door for future challenges to their sponsorship: what, for instance, do they do if FIFA is shown to not be taking these matters seriously and for there to be little or no progress?

We’d like to see stronger words, particularly from Coke, but this is a start and shows that it is possible to rattle the financial underpinnings of FIFA’s unscrupulous empire. We still have nothing from McDonalds, Adidas (despite their explicit policy of support for Freedom of Association) or Hyundai and Kia. There’s plenty still to push for, with added incentive that it seems to be working.

Can you help pressure the key sponsors to step up by sending your own email?

The Hypocrisy World Cup? FIFA sponsors silent on Qatar abuses

62 workers may lose their lives for each game played during Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, a tournament likely to be sponsored by FIFA partner companies Coke, VISA, McDonald’s, Adidas, Kia and Hyundai. Without sponsorship, this multi-billion dollar tournament couldn’t take place.

There has been almost no pressure from FIFA to fix the unfolding human rights crisis around the Qatar World Cup, but nor have the main sponsors taken a stand, despite their professed commitment to human rights and workers’ welfare. We’ve been working with SKINS Official Non-Sponsor and New FIFA Now to call on them to live up to their own standards.

Most sponsors commit themselves to respecting the UN Declaration of Human Rights – which guarantees the right to join a union – and have specific policies banning forced labour and slavery in their supply chains. However, none of them seem to have considered that paying FIFA to host a tournament built on slave labour goes against everything they claim to believe in.

As a customer or potential customer of these multinational companies, can you help us pressure them to apply their own ethical standards to how they spend their sponsorship funding?

We know money talks in FIFA. If one of these sponsors were to speak up it would be hugely influential in guiding FIFA and Qatar into ensuring that labour standards for people preparing the country to host the World Cup meet international standards of safety, decency and human rights.

TAKE ACTION: Email FIFA’s key sponsors now

Top down reform can never move fast enough to save lives in Qatar – that’s why trade unions are needed

Only free Trade Unions can stop thousands dying in Qatar.

We’ll be honest. Very occasionally our campaign partners and volunteers don’t quite understand one of our key demands of Qatar. The right to get paid on time, or work in a safer environment, or to keep your passport, or leave the country for a family funeral (or to escape a bad boss), these are all easy points of agreement.

The right to join a union? Is that as important as all the others?

Yes, this campaign was started by the trade unions, but that’s not the only reason Playfair Qatar puts such an emphasis on freedom of association. Put simply, trade unions are the best way of delivering all those obvious rights, and frankly the only way they’ll be in place quick enough to stop 40 people dying each month.

Today is the anniversary of the DLA Piper report, a Qatar-commissioned examination of workers’ rights and conditions in the Gulf state. The report, mostly accepted by Qatar, made wide-ranging suggestions for urgent reforms, including easing restrictions on independent trade unions for migrant workers.  That part, naturally, was not accepted.

The Guardian, marking the anniversary of a report that owed a lot to their tireless investigative work, quotes Qatar’s Labour Minister Abdulla al-Khulaifi as saying his government is “moving as fast as the system allows”.

Although we dispute whether it’s the case that the world’s richest nation can really have achieved absolutely nothing at the fastest it can move, there is an element of truth to this excuse: while they deny workers’ rights, their top-down promises of change will achieve nothing.

Qatar has critically underinvested in training labour inspectors, and been roundly criticised by the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) for having only 300 covering the whole country. Over the last year it swears it has trained more, but hasn’t confirmed exactly how many. In the middle of a World Cup-driven construction boom that will swell the migrant worker population to 2.5 million, even doubling that number will be painfully inadequate.

Abuses that currently contravene Qatar’s laws, such as passport confiscation and dormitory overcrowding, never lead to prosecution. New laws, while better than nothing, are not the answer on their own.

Trade Union rights would achieve two things. The first, and most pressing, is that the slowly growing force of labour inspectors would have extra eyes and ears on the ground. At the moment, the depth and complexity of the sub-contracting chain makes it easy for both government and employers to deny responsibility, and even knowledge, of worksite abuse. Independent union representatives, with proper legal support, could change this in months.

Secondly, it would challenge Qatar’s increasing culture of secrecy.  After the arrest of British-Nepalese researchers Krishna Upadhyaya and Ghimire Gundev last year, and the detaining of a German TV crew in March this year, and its tactics at the ILO to deflect an official investigation,  it seems Qatar is balancing out its pleas for patience with a crackdown on those trying to find the truth. The issue will never be resolved adequately if Qatar resorts to state power and international lobbying to restrict access to crucial evidence.  Qatar boasts of new ‘codes of conduct’ for contractors – how will we ever know if they are following them?

With free trade unions, Qatar would have to accept that it would be under scrutiny from day to day, but – if it really is pulling out all the stops to move as fast as the system allows – it should welcome that. Instead, they’re terrified. Maybe they got all their information about trade unions from the Daily Mail. More likely, they still have quite a lot to hide.

Workplace representation trumps top down tinkering every time. In terms of responding to poor living conditions, problems with payment, illegal passport confiscation and dangerous working conditions, Qatar could get regular information from the source and be able to target its inspection resources where they are most needed. In return, all it would have to do is protect union reps from persecution. There’s a reason governments, employers and workers agree at the ILO on the freedom to join unions: they work, and are the reason why the Olympic Games infrastructure in Sydney and London, for instance, resulted in so few deaths.

So next time Qatar tells us that reform is all a bit awkward and that it takes time to fix a big problem, it’s because they’re using the wrong tools, like a heart surgeon performing an operation with a rubber hammer.

Qatar sees enemies instead of potential new friends and its paranoia might cost the lives of 4,000 men. Trade Unions can save them: indeed, they’re the only ones that can do it in time.

Qatar’s Inaction Replay

It’s a strange tactic to take the anniversary of a promise you didn’t keep to make exactly the same promise. One year ago, with great fanfare, Qatar’s government promised the world that kafala – their sponsorship system that essentially leaves workers owned by their employers – would be abolished as part of “far-reaching labour market reforms”. The promises were so vague that at the time that one critic dismissed it as “an announcement of announcement”. That leaves this week’s statement as a re-announcement of an announcement of an announcement.

Kafala is the bedrock of abuse in Qatar, where the ITUC estimates that more than 4,000 workers will die before the start of the 2022 World Cup. Although there are many other faults, and abolishing kafala would only begin the process of ending them, the sponsorship system overrides even those few rights that workers are supposedly entitled to. For as long as employers control people’s freedom to leave the country (as kafala allows them) they will always have all the power.

The re-announcement of the intention to abolish kafala comes with all the same flaws as last year – there’s no real timetable attached to the “promise” and it’s clear that the legislation is still being looked at by the body most likely to strike it down, the Shura council (which has strong business representation).  It doesn’t fully abolish the employer-controlled exit visa, and it would still be very difficult for workers to leave an abusive boss for a better one. Last year Amnesty International called the proposed kafala reforms a “missed opportunity”. This year it feels as though Qatar has been lining up an open goal for the past 12 months and has still managed to hit the post.

“Qatar is a regime intent on changing the subject rather than changing its rules.”

In that there is anything positive about today’s inaction replay it is solely that Qatar feels under enough pressure to at least pretend to be taking workers’ rights seriously, but the “avalanche of media disclosures that suggest massive violation of world soccer body FIFA’s bidding rules” as MideastSoccer blogger James Dorsey writes, suggests a regime intent on changing the subject rather than changing its rules.

There is no evidence that Qatar is serious about real change to protect the people preparing the country to host football’s premier tournament. Indeed to listen to Hassan Al-Thawadi speak, head of Qatar’s World Cup “Supreme Committee”, you would think everything was already fixed: “the… stadium projects that we are responsible for, there have been no fatalities and no major injuries as well.” He knows it will be some time before anyone can contradict him, as Qatar doesn’t care enough to keep records of migrant worker fatalities. The figures we work with come via the Indian and Nepalese governments, who at least keep track of the fate of their people.

If Qatar was serious about demonstrating improvements for migrant workers, it would surely welcome all independent scrutiny. In reality, Qatar seems to be prepared to go to great lengths to prevent anyone being able to confirm that those improvements exist.

At the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN Agency through which Employers, Workers and Governments negotiate international rights for workers, Qatar appears to have been engaged in a frenzied lobbying exercise to prevent it from sending observers to assess conditions for migrants.  Faced with an ILO vote on whether to send a four-person committee with a remit to see what was happening in the country, the Gulf state responded by claiming to have revolutionised health & safety and to be cracking down on employers breaking the law.

These claims were hotly contested, and Qatar’s failures were considered enough to unite even the USA and Russia in calling for further investigation, but some other governments – perversely including countries like Pakistan and India with large populations in Qatar – lined up in its defence.

As Sam Gurney, the UK’s Worker Representative on the ILO Governing Body, said:

“There was a sense of shock and outrage at the sight of representatives of countries, where people are dying every week, defending Qatar in the face of all available evidence and what they must know about the fate of their citizens.”

Having ensured that the international community was kept at arm’s length, Qatar has turned on the media. Today we learn that a TV crew:

…”From West German Broadcasting was arrested… during a shoot with workers in the Qatari capital Doha, then interrogated by the State Security, brought before the prosecution and released only after another 14 hours. … The camera equipment, laptops and personal mobile phones were confiscated and – contrary to other commitments given to the German Embassy in Qatar – returned only with a four-week delay. All data had been deleted and pieces of equipment damaged.”

(If you read German, there’s more here).

These are not the actions of the regime proud of its transformative record on workers’ rights, but of one terrified that it’s losing control. If Qatar wants to distract us from the ever-returning boomerang of corruption allegations, it should try – among other things – abolishing the kafala exit visa and allowing workers to join trade unions. That would get our full attention.

Instead, it’s hard to believe that we’re still to see any substantive reforms after years of promises. Qatar wants this contest to drift into extra time, but with 40 workers dying every month, we’re sick of the time-wasting. That’s why we’ll keep campaigning alongside football fans, like those from Chelsea Supporters’ Trust (above), and with unions and human rights organisations to force Qatar to give us more than words.

Qatar asks for patience – to perfect its PR strategy

Qatar seems to be confused about what message to put out to its critics, simultaneously accusing them of a conspiracy whilst also meekly asking for more time to put an end to the abuse of migrant construction workers  – currently preparing the country to host the 2022 World Cup. However, with Qatar’s poor track record on delivering reform, only implementing real change will make us critics go away. Read more

Striking workers in Qatar find labour laws finally working – against them

If you ever needed proof of Qatar’s one-sided refereeing, this is it

The reason “Play by the Rules” is one of our ‘Playfair Qatar’ campaign demands is that Qatar could make life better for its 1.5m migrant workers so easily: it could apply the laws designed to protect them as rigorously as it applies the laws designed to control them. As the Gulf state crushes striking workers standing up for their rights, it’s time they cracked down on the real problems. READ MORE