The reality of Qatar's promises to workers remains hidden in the fog © Francisco Anzola https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ Cropped for shape.
World Cup workers still suffering as the clock ticks on Qatari promises
Now the spectacle of one world cup has finally released football fans from its grip, attention is again turning to another contest, as Qatar wrestles with itself over its horrific record of abuse of migrant workers that has led to over a thousand deaths since the Cup was awarded to them.
What’s different this time is that amongst the facts of unsafe workplaces and unsanitary living conditions is the ongoing “will they won’t they” drama created by the Qatari interior ministry’s promise in May to “abolish kafala”, the sponsorship system which traps workers in Qatar and lays the foundations for most of the exploitation of migrants. Cynicism was expressed at the time by Amnesty International, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and others that the reforms were weak and had no timescale attached to them. Sure enough, 10-weeks later there is still no sign of any firm plan for when this “medieval bonded labour scheme”, as former TUC General Secretary John Monks called it in the House of Lords last week, might be consigned to history.
Although few doubt that there are progressive elements in the Qatari regime that would dearly love to see an end to the kind of working conditions and the desperate lack of freedom that saw 70 labourers from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka die from falls or strikes by objects in 2013-13 and 56 others take their own lives, there is a fear that they lack the power to break a powerful alliance of tradition and greed and make reforms a reality.
Amnesty International’s James Lynch, who wrote 2013’s “The Dark Side of Migration” report on the widespread abuses in Qatar, adds that it seems that the government “haven’t grasped the scale and urgency of the challenge”, despite the huge international pressure kicked up by the ITUC’s prediction of 4,000 deaths by the World Cup and The Guardian’s excellent series of articles and videos like this, exposing the worst effects of kafala. Lynch also says:
“The government seems unwilling or unable to stand up to influential parts of Qatar’s business community, who believe their interests lie in maintaining control of a cheap workforce and who have vigorously led opposition to full cancellation of the exit permit and substantive reform of the sponsorship system.”
This bureaucratic torpor and political stalemate is illustrated by this week’s Guardian article about the fate of workers involved in the construction of the Al Bidda “Tower of Football” in Doha. Amnesty met them late last year and made sure the authorities were aware of their plight. Many months later they are still stranded with no pay and – just as seriously thanks to Qatar’s extreme immigration laws- no paperwork. Several have been arrested, while those responsible for reducing them to near starvation and statelessness may not even have broken any Qatari laws.
Failure to pay wages was one of the many priorities outlined by the Interior Ministry back in May. If this example, right under the noses of the ‘Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy’ (the 2022 organising committee), cannot be resolved, what chance do the hundreds of thousands of workers toiling in the intense heat of Doha (tomorrow’s BBC forecast, 44°c) and retiring to cramped, hot and polluted camps have of their situations being improved? With up to a million more workers needed to deliver the Cup infrastructure, the clock is ticking to prevent the ITUC’s prediction of 4,000 deaths moving from a warning to being a tragic statistic. What, exactly, are we waiting for?
Until the laws have formally been changed and – even more importantly – an enforcement infrastructure put in place, Qatar’s promises mean as much as their current laws banning passport confiscation – a law which (according to the International Labour Organization) so far has brought no prosecutions for those illegally withholding travel documents but plenty of punishment for their victims.
If powerful business interests really are lobbying to keep their workers in a state of slave labour, then it becomes even more important to counterpoint that and not slacken the pressure on Qatar for a moment.
Unions here are certainly not minded to accept promises as currency. Our fringe on Qatar at the Tolpuddle Festival this month brought some fiery contributions from trade unionists as Antonio Lisboa from the Brazilian CUT and Chris Williamson MP, a UCATT member who travelled with his union to Qatar earlier this year, joined me to talk about the World Cup and workers’ rights. As one contributor asked, if 1,000 workers – brave people who travelled hundreds of miles for a chance to feed their families – have already been killed by this World Cup, how can it be justified?
The answer can only be this: it is not vague promises of reform that can even start to justify Qatar’s retention of the World Cup, it is concrete, verifiable progress towards becoming a country that respects workers’ lives and freedom. Qatar must face down its business lobby, implement its current laws adequately and introduce the additional ones it has promised. It must regulate the recruitment industry that brings these workers into effective bondage and end utterly the laws which forbid them from leaving. Finally, if it truly is serious, it must allow migrant workers to represent themselves through trade unions, able to tell us first hand of unsafe conditions, poverty pay and abuse: only that will lift the lid on Qatar’s box of promises and tell us that kafala is well and truly dead.
The TUC will be campaigning with unions, human rights organisations and football fans over the next few months to keep pressure on Qatar from the UK Government, business and – through the FA – FIFA to start saving lives now. There will be a fringe meeting at our Congress in Liverpool on 9th September, discussing ways in which unions, football fans and other campaigners can work together to stop 4,000 workers dying for the World Cup.