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FIFA: lesson learnt

Mirjam Gehrke / nm, ng
February 13, 2014

FIFA has appeared before the European Parliament to address human rights violations in Qatar. Ex-German Football Association boss Theo Zwanziger insisted that repeating the vote was "counterproductive."

A protester advocating workers rights in Qatar
Image: Reuters

"We wanted Qatar, and we're going to follow through," was how FIFA President Sepp Blatter responded when reports surfaced in October revealing inhumane working conditions, and even deaths, on World Cup construction sites in the emirate. An investigation by the The Guardian newspaper discovered more than 40 Nepalese workers had died due to workplace accidents or heart failure between June and August alone. The embassies representing India and Nepal, where most of the migrant workers come from, also revealed that up to 200 laborers had died in 2013.

Following talks with FIFA in November, Qatar agreed to deliver a report on the improvement of working conditions. That document was submitted on Wednesday (12.02.2014) and forms the basis of a "sport and human rights" hearing that was held before the European Parliament's Human Rights Subcommittee on Thursday. The former president of the German Football Association (DFB), Theo Zwanziger, represented FIFA's Executive Committee at the hearing.

Theo Zwanziger
Former German Football Association President Theo Zwanziger will appear before the hearingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"FIFA welcomes the concrete steps announced by the Supreme Committee for organization and sustainability to ensure the welfare of laborers working for the FIFA World Cup 2022," the soccer world governing body told DW. It's now important for "all parties involved to pull together and continue with these actions that have been set in motion."

FIFA, however, provided few details about what "concrete steps" had actually been taken.

"Awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar happened at a time...when human rights issues were not on the agenda to a high extent," Zwanziger told the parliamentary committee.

But he conceded that "we will have to make these issues a high priority," adding though that stripping Qatar of hosting the event was "counter-productive."

Up to 4,000 victims

"Qatar is a slave state," says Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). "There is no freedom of association. Workers live in squalor, and are forced to work under extreme conditions, in extraordinary heat; they don't have enough drinking water. They don't have a normal weekend, are kept apart from other workers, and there's no proper health care."

According to the ITUC, the laborers often work up to 12 hours a day. There's often no electricity in the mass accommodation where they live, and sanitary conditions are abysmal. Without drastic improvements, the ITUC fears the death toll could rise to up to 4,000 by the 2022 World Cup.

But "improvements" aren't enough to make a difference, ITUC Director Tim Noonan said.

migrant workers in Qatar
A risky jobImage: Getty Images

"What's required is changes in the law in Qatar that begin to treat workers like human beings and give them their right to be free from the absolute control of their employer under the kafala-system."

The kafala system of law of applies in almost all the Gulf states, and places responsibility for all foreign workers on their employers. The workers must hand in their passports, and cannot leave the country without the permission of their employers. Under the current law, they can also be expelled at the company's request without receiving their wages. Trade unions are banned, and mounting a law suit to recoup unpaid wages is almost impossible.

FIFA must take a stand

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, nine football stadiums are being built from scratch and three of Qatar's existing arenas are being renovated. Then there's the massive task of developing the infrastructure needed to host the event. The desert state's road and transport network needs to be expanded, and the drinking water supply and suitable accommodation need to be guaranteed for all football players and international visitors attending the event.

Of the 1.9 million residents in Qatar, only 12 percent are Qataris. The country has the highest rate of migrant workers in the world, with most employed in the construction and domestic service sectors.

"FIFA offered to tell Qatar they had to put workers' right in place," said Burrow. "But we suspect nothing will come of it, that there'll be no freedom of association, no fundamental right to bargain collectively and no improvement on the complaints system."

Migrant workers wait for their bus in Doha
Foreign workers travel back to their living quarters in Doha after a 12 hour shiftImage: picture-alliance/dpa

However, the international football body expects the World Cup will actually help "accelerate the introduction of uniform and adequate labor standards in Qatar." FIFA also said "relevant organizations such as the International Labor Organization should get involved."

Lack of political will

Barbara Lochbihler, the Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee in the European Parliament welcomed FIFA's willingness to comment on the situation in Qatar.

Lochbihler said the EU could "put forward policy recommendations to the government of Qatar, as well as to FIFA or the International Labor Organization."

Measures against rights violations, such as EU sanctions against companies that violate the rights of workers in Qatar, have not been put on the table. "I can call for that as an individual MP, but my committee doesn't have a position on this matter," Lochbihler said.

The European Parliament elections, scheduled for May, make it difficult for European lawmakers to take a clear position on Qatar.

"If we didn't have an election coming up, you could pass a resolution after the hearing, and one item in this resolution would be a call for a boycott," Lochbihler said. "But time-wise that's just not possible now. There also wouldn't be a political majority supporting the cause. "

If Qatar doesn't move to improve the human rights situation of its migrant workers, FIFA will need to take action, Sharan Burrow is convinced. "If Qatar refuses to change, FIFA has no choice but to repeat the vote, if it doesn't want to [hold] the World Cup in a slave state."