Qatari World Cup bid draws unions’ attention

Activists worry that workers building football facilities in the emirate will be abused.

November 19, 2011 16:41
Qatar's Mohammed Kassola (L) fights for the ball

Qatar football player 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad)


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The audacious bid by Qatar to host the 2022 World Football Cup has so far overcome doubts about the tiny Gulf emirate’s excruciatingly hot weather, its ability to handle the logistics of managing one of the world’s biggest sporting events and accusations that it bribed its way to victory.

Now, it faces a new challenge, as union activist begin pressuring the emirate to ensure that workers’ rights are respected as construction begins on building stadiums and other faculties that could earn more than $100 billion and employ tens of thousands. The International Trade Union Confederation based in Brussels is focusing its campaign on the World Cup’s sponsor, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA).

In a letter issued on Thursday after meeting with FIFA officials in Zurich, the confederation’s General Secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement that the group “will not accept people working to build stadiums without respect for workers’ rights.” She said the meeting was constructive and accepted further talks with the football federation and Qatar officials.

“If the extremely wealthy nation of Qatar wants to host this major international event, we expect civilized treatment of workers,” said Burrow. There was no immediate comment from FIFA.

Labor issues could prove to be an embarrassing controversy for Qatar, which is engaged in a multi-pronged effort to raise its international profile. It’s not only hosting the World Cup but making a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

With an indigenous population estimated at just 200,000 people, revenues from natural gas have enabled Qatar to punch many times over its weight and make it the world’s richest country on a per capita GDP basis. But like other Gulf countries, Qatar is reliant on foreign guest workers and the ones at the bottom of the labor market – mainly people from poor Asian countries working as domestics, in construction and unskilled or semi-skilled labor – fare badly.

“It’s such a small country and heavily dependent on migrant labor, which is a problem in the Middle East. Such a high percentage of the workforce is migrants and they are the ones who will build the stadium. We have to ensure workers’ rights for these people,” Kriston Blom campaigns officer for Play Fair, told The Media Line.

Play Fair is a global campaign that includes the confederation and other union groups targeting manufacturers of sporting gear and more recently stadium builders to ensure that labor rights are enforced in big-time sporting events. It has called attention to abuses connected with the Olympics as well as the World Cup.

A study published in August by Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) found that among unskilled building workers that 30% were only paid no more than 800 Qatari riyals ($219) a month while 70% received no more than 1,100. A third never receive their wages on time. The report said wages at that level are insufficient to sustain workers and their families back home.

Moreover, about 43% of those surveyed were housed in rooms containing at least six beds.

The NHRC said living quarters and toilets and other amenities did not comply with standard regulations on health and hygiene while medical care varied from one firm to another.

Foreign workers often arrive in Qatar and other Gulf countries to discover they will be paid considerably less than what they were promised back in their homelands. A system known as kafala ties foreign workers to the companies that sponsored their travel to the Gulf, which means migrants have little chance of escaping from abusive employers.

Although collective bargaining and the right to strike are recognized by law, conditions and restrictions make exercising them nearly impossible.

The problems of foreign workers are well-documented, but rarely get much attention. But as Qatar and other wealthy Gulf kingdoms embark on increasingly glittery, high-profile projects, like skyscrapers, luxury villas and state-of-the art medical centers their labor practices have attracted unwanted attention.

Last March, a group of artists are threatened to boycott the planned Abu Dhabi branch of New York’s Guggenheim Museum unless developers end what petitioners say is exploitation and abuse of construction workers building the $800 million cultural center. Last year, New York University agreed to improve labor conditions at the Saadiyat Island campus it is developing after coming under pressure from student groups.

“We have not had such problems or complaints as in the case with the Guggenheim Museum and Cultural District in Abu Dhabi,” Hala Al-Ali, who specializes in labor issues at the NHRC told The Media Line. “NHRC has been working on the improving of conditions for foreign workers way before the nomination of Qatar for the World Cup.”

Construction of the facilities for the World Cup in 2022 has not started yet. But as work begins and other high-profile projects begin to take shape, international scrutiny is likely to grow.

Qatar is already home to some 1.5 million guest workers, some of them white collar professionals who enjoy much better conditions. But as the country begins construction of what some estimates put at 12 stadiums, 70,000 new hotel rooms and a network of road and rail links, the country may need one million additional workers.

Officials have promised model housing complexes and better laws to prevent abuses such as late salary payments or loan-sharking by recruitment agencies. A draft law to combat human trafficking was recently approved by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The NHRC has written a booklet on labor rights, operates a hotline and conducts training for some 2,000 community leaders and activists, according to Al-Ali. Last year it began conducting overseas meetings with union leaders and others in countries like India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal in an effort to devise ways to prepare visiting workers for the legal and social conditions they can expect in Qatar.

“The discussions were very frank and heated,” she recalled. “We learned a lot from the participation of former migrant workers in Qatar, who spoke about their problems there .”

Blom of Play Fair said the union movements are focusing their efforts on FIFA rather than Qatari officials because they believe lobbying that way is more effective. FIFA is a powerful organization and sets labor and others standards for the events under its jurisdiction, she explained.

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