It is unclear what the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, discussed with David Cameron at No.10 Downing Street last week, but the tiny Gulf state’s horrendous labour rights record was unlikely to have been on the agenda.
Qatar, widely seen as a benign and progressive absolute monarchy with a modicum of democracy, has become a major player in the international arena thanks to the acquisitions of its sovereign wealth fund and its reputation as a diplomatic mediator (although Bahraini democracy activists might beg to differ).
Despite its international standing, the controversial awarding of the 2022 FIFA World Cup to the emirate attracted the wrath of labour and human rights activists worldwide.
With Qatari authorities promising to spend nearly $100 billion on new infrastructure for the World Cup, it is understood a large number of migrant workers will be needed for the mammoth construction drive.
Migrant workers, who make up 94 per cent of the Qatari workforce, have for years helped build Qatar’s infrastructure while suffering heinous labour rights abuses. It is with this in mind the International Trade Union Confederation – which has 175 million members in 153 countries – called for a boycott of the event unless internationally accepted labour standards are adopted for Qatar’s expatriate workforce.
Qatar does not allow migrant workers to join or form trade unions. They are exempt from labour laws governing the ‘local’ workforce (all 6% of them) and are therefore not covered by adequate health and safety standards or simple employment rights. Worst of all, the kafala sponsorship system ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer.
Workers can only change jobs with their sponsor’s approval or exceptionally with the permission of the Interior Ministry. While consent to change jobs is rarely given, employers are known to report workers that flee abuse or report rights violations as absconders, leading to their detention and expulsion.
For a worker to leave the country, an exit visa is required from their sponsor. This is hardly a formality as employers are known to confiscate their sponsored workers’ passports.
Combined with the debts migrant workers generally rack up to go and work in the region, these inhumane working conditions have led to workers’ taking extreme action. For example, the Nepali embassy in Doha recorded 162 deaths of its nationals in 2011 of which 13 were suicides and 22 were work-related accidents. Ninety two deaths were dubiously classified as ‘unspecified deaths during sleep’.
Even Qatar’s very own Al-Jazeera news network (whose owner is a cousin of the Emir) has reported on the plight of the nation’s migrant workers.
It is no surprise, then, that ITUC lodged a complaint with the International Labour Organization accusing Qatar of flouting its obligations under the ILO’s Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, one of only six ILO Conventions ratified by the Gulf state. There was a muted response from the Qatari authorities with the labour minister recently hinting migrants may be allowed to form unions. However, it is unlikely these would be genuine or independent.
With stakes so high, it is imperative the likes of David Cameron raise these issues with the Qatari authorities at every possible opportunity. It is also high time for FIFA, footballers, managers, and their unions to do something about the situation.
Egil Olsen, the enigmatic and popular manager of the Norwegian national team, before officially adhering to ITUC’s campaign, said he simply:
“…can’t see how FIFA can look the other way.”
Football has put Qatar in the spotlight. It is now up to everyone involved in the game – fans included – to tell the Qatari authorities there will be no World Cup without workers’ rights.
• Blatter, Qatar and corruption: Football needs its Gorbachev moment – June 1st, 2011
• Qatari apathy demonstrates folly of FIFA – February 1st, 2011