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Qatar's bloody disgrace

A damning new report from the ITUC sheds a murky light on the 2022 World Cup hosts, says JAMES RODIE

At Fifa's executive committee meeting tomorrow and Friday football's assembled bigwigs will decide if they should do anything about the scandalous situation of migrant workers in Qatar.

Conservative estimates suggest at least 4,000 workers could die before a ball is even kicked - based on 1,200 deaths reported by the Indian and Nepalese embassies, only accounting for about half the migrant workforce.

As part of the International Trade Union Confederation's protracted attempt to improve the conditions for workers in the 2022 World Cup host nation it has published a damning exposé of the country's employment system.

Under the kafala immigration system, bosses enjoy near total control over the workers they employ, including the ability to stop them changing jobs or return to their home countries.

As the ITUC's gathered testimony shows, kafala workers are often afraid to report the commonplace abuses - from lousy accommodation, withheld wages and even physical beatings - for fear of retaliation, especially when their bosses hold positions of influence within Qatar's ruling dynasty.

Even when they do pluck up the courage to complain to the labour department the dragged-out court proceedings or mediations are carried out in a language they don't understand. Some are even arrested on dubious grounds and end up in prison.

Trade unions in Qatar were only made legal in 2004, but there are still no collective bargaining agreements in existence in the country. The laws exclude not only migrant workers - 1.4 million people in a population of just over two million with an estimated 500,000 more needed before 2022 - but public-sector workers, "casual" workers, the police, seafarers, agricultural workers and others, such that more than 90 per cent of the workforce are banned from combining.

On top of that, Qatari labour law on joining unions doesn't apply to those in workplaces employing fewer than 100 people, excluding even more workers. The ITUC warns that Qatar is failing to fulfil its obligations under the few International Labour Organisation conventions it has signed.

Fifa's willingness to respond robustly when abuse is uncovered has also been thrown into doubt by its reaction to ITUC allegations.

A union delegation visited the Al Wakrah Stadium site, finding 38 workers from India, Nepal and Thailand living "in squalor with mattresses on the floor in makeshift rooms underneath the bleachers or stadium seats" - this despite much-vaunted "charters" supposedly guaranteeing workers' rights and conditions.

Fifa reacted to the ITUC's photographic evidence by describing the situation as "complex."

The so-called Supreme Committee responsible for the tournament and enforcing labour standards carried out a "successful inspection" of the site in January that managed to miss the plight of the workers there, but has since pledged to rehouse the workers after the ITUC complained to Fifa.

The case clearly backs ILO and union warnings that the mechanisms Qatar has put in place won't be able to fulfil their functions. Not only are they limited in scope - failing to end the illegal but near-ubiquitous practice of confiscating passports for instance - but they lack the enforcement mechanism to actually solve them.

The report outlines even more shocking evidence of abuse, saying over 2,500 Indonesian maids a year are forced to flee from abusive sponsors and uncovering huge disparities in pay based on race.

"Qatar must change," said general secretary Sharan Burrow.

"Fifa can make a difference by making the abolition of kafala and respect for international labour rights a condition of Qatar hosting the World Cup in 2022.

"If Fifa demands that Qatar abolish kafala and respect fundamental international rights, it will happen."

We should all support the campaign to make football a force for good and if Qatar refuses to up its game and provide decent conditions for workers, it can't be allowed to hold the tournament.


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