Qatar: FIFA must act

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Pressure has mounted on FIFA to address the toll of deaths among migrant workers in Qatar, as the emirate prepares for the World Cup in 2022. As its Executive Committee meets today, the international trade union movement is demanding action.

Qatar is a country which takes no responsibility for workers. Trapped in a system of forced labour known as kafala, 1.4m migrant workers—the bulk of a population of 2.1m—are not free to change jobs, leave the country or stand up for their rights. There is only a façade of government in a state run like a family business. Minsters with little power try to manage portfolios with only a shadow of a civil service and no democratic accountability.

Conditions for workers are getting worse as the world’s richest country ramps up $140 billion of infrastructure projects ahead of the 2022 World Cup. The construction overdrive is costing workers their lives.

The ITUC estimates at least 4,000 more workers will die before the start of the World Cup unless real changes are made. This conservative estimate is based on mortality statistics collected by the embassies for just two countries which account for around half the migrant workforce—Nepal and India—and on the minimum forecast by official sources in Qatar of 500,000 extra workers being recruited in the years leading up to 2022.

In 2013 191 Nepalese workers died working in Qatar, compared with 169 in 2012. In all 400 Nepalese workers have died since 2010 when Qatar won the right to host the World Cup. Meanwhile 218 Indian nationals died last year, with the toll peaking in the hottest month, August. In 2012 237 Indian workers died and a further 239 in 2011.

According to diplomatic sources, the Qatari government is harassing embassy officials to keep quiet about these deaths, to keep the flow of labour coming. Yet whether the cause of death is labelled a work accident, a heart attack (brought on by heat stress) or a disease associated with squalid habitation, theroot cause is the same—working conditions.

Terrible injuries

Reports in medical journals provide some insight into accidents in Qatar, drawing on admissions data from the major hospital in Doha, the Hamad Medical Corporation.  The overwhelming majority (73.3%) of accidents at work, or travelling to and from work, involve young men (20-40). All are migrant workers. Terrible injuries are happening every day—58% are head or spinal injuries.

Hamad Medical Corporation, which has first-rate facilities and international medical staff, recorded 1,000 incidents of major workplace trauma in 2012. A 2014 report revealed that 63% of victims had had no protective gear. Half of major workplace trauma incidents were due to falls from heights, which doctors say are increasing in frequency.

At the Hamad emergency department, Asmaa Hameed spends much of her working time treating Nepali and Sri Lankan construction workers. “Most of these workers are really young, maybe as young as 20, and they usually don’t have a health card when they come in for treatment,” Hameed said. “Every day I see a lot of fractures due to falls from heights, severe cuts and bruises and amputation of limbs.”

Qatar’s national health strategy 2011-16 admits death rates are approximately double that for the European Union: “Workplace injuries are the third highest cause of accidental deaths in Qatar. Expert opinion suggests a rate of about four to five fatalities per 100,000 workers.” These figures do not include the many workers who die inside labour camps.

Furious reaction

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) have exposed labour-rights abuses in Qatar. This has provoked a furious reaction from the Qatari authorities and, despite frequent contacts since late 2011, the ITUC has detected no political will to implement international labour standards or labour-related commitments of the Qatar National Vision 2030.

FIFA has said it expects international norms of behaviour from all World Cup hosts and claims that the tournament can trigger positive social change in Qatar, including improving labour rights and conditions for migrant workers. In November 2013, it called on “economic and political leaders to join the football community in contributing to ensure that the International Labour Organisation’s core labour standards are introduced quickly, consistently and on a sustained basis in Qatar”.

“Every day I see a lot of fractures due to falls from heights, severe cuts and bruises and amputation of limbs.”

As the FIFA Executive Committee meets in Zurich today—its decision to give Qatar the right to host the World Cup mired in allegations of corruption and worker abuse—will it continue to accept false claims of progress? There has been no change to the kafala regime. There have been no moves to bring legislation into line with international standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Qatar has refused to work with reputable international labour-hire companies, whose involvement would help to clean up the exploitative, chaotic and abusive way in which migrant workers are recruited in sending countries. It has announced plans to rehouse 28,000 migrant workers in better accommodation but this would affect only one in 50 and previous such initiatives have faced years of delay due to ineffective planning processes: it is much easier to get a permit for a skyscraper than for labour accommodation.

A broken system

Workers and employers are operating in a broken system. In response to the rising death toll and growing pressure, Qatar has released two charters for workers, the Qatar Foundation for Mandatory Standards (April 2013) and the Supreme Committee Workers’ Welfare Standards (February 2014). While these do set standards, Qatar’s weak and outdated labour laws remain unchanged: workers remain totally under the control of their employer.

When the ruling emir established the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, he gave it oversight over all developments to deliver and run the World Cup. These include road, rail and accommodation projects—none of which come under the workers’ charters.

The emir’s decree however revealed the full power of FIFA, referring as it did to the Supreme Committee “taking into account the obligations imposed on the State by the International Federation of Association Football (‘FIFA’)”. FIFA can make a difference. If it makes the abolition of kafala and respect for international rights a condition of hosting the World Cup in 2022, it will happen.

This story originally appeared at opendemocracy and written by Sharan Burrow. She is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.