CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE in DOHA —- Amnesty International has told FIFA, in no uncertain terms, that the days of passing the buck on Qatar’s kafala system are over.

The world football federation has been put on notice that its credibility as a responsible governing body is dependent on its response to the challenges thrown up by the medieval system which enables exploitation of migrant workers in the World Cup host state.

Amnesty's challenge to FIFA and president Sepp Blatter

Amnesty’s report bears a message which reaches far beyond 2022 and talks directly to both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee about how they judge bidders for the greatest two global sports events.

No longer can FIFA expect to ignore occurrences such as the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina in 1978; no longer can the IOC approve the environmental devastation of Sochi 2014 and talk its way around Russia’s anti-gay legislation.

The world is watching and expecting higher standards.

Design timeline

Amnesty launched its report: The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup  in Doha one day after the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee revealed the design and timeline for its first World Cup stadium in the southern port of Al Wakrah.

Amnesty based its report on interviews with 210 migrant workers in the construction sector during two visits to Qatar in October 2012 and March 2013. Concerns had already raised by the International Trade Union Confederation and were followed up and exposed by The Guardian.

James Lynch, Amnesty researcher on Gulf migrants’ rights, said: “It’s not enough for FIFA to downplay its responsibility in this issue. The World Cup is FIFA’s tournament and it carries its name. FIFA has a responsibility to ensure human rights abuses down take place in the staging or preparation for World Cups.

“So we expect FIFA to engage closely with Qatar 2022 and the Qatari government to ensure that labour exploitation in the construction sector ends. FIFA needs to send a strong message to the Qatari authorities and the construction sector that human rights have to be respected in all World Cup related construction projects.

“That’s not only stadiums and training facilities, but also hotels, public transport and infrastructure that are part of this World Cup.”

Forced labour

The report details complex contractual chains as well as documenting widespread abuse of migrant workers which, it alleged, amount in some cases forced labour.

In September, the ITUC had predicted thousands of deaths on World Cup-linked projects over the next nine years. This was addressed with concern by FIFA president Sepp Blatter when he met the Emir of Qatar last week. Blatter had said: “We will also touch on this concern, the working conditions but we are not the ones that can actually change it”.

However Amnesty believes there is much more that FIFA and Qatar 2022 can do.

It says: “FIFA’s repeated assertions that it is not responsible and cannot change things suggests that the organisation may believe that raising the issue with the state authorities is sufficient.

“Additionally, the president’s comments that there is ‘plenty of time’ before 2022 fails to recognise that abuses are happening already, and that hundreds of thousands of workers will be recruited into Qatar’s construction sector in the next nine years.

“It is not enough to wait until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is over before FIFA turns its attention to the human rights risks associated with the staging of the world cup construction work in Qatar.”

Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary-general, also urged Blatter to take a more proactive approach.

Plan of action

He said: “People like Blatter and people who are involved in the issue – it’s really important they speak to migrant workers themselves. It’s important to talk to the people affected otherwise coming to a conclusion is trick.

“So what we need from the Supreme Committee is a clear plan of action of how it will address the problems. It’s good, the overall statement, that they are concerned. When we met with them [Qatar 2022] this morning it’s important they bring out the standards and implement them – it’s not enough to just say they have the standards.

“It cannot be restricted to the stadiums themselves, it needs to be dealing with the broader problems. We hope that the fact that the World Cup is being hosted in Qatar provides a real opportunity, a momentum, to bring about the reform that is needed in the sponsorship system and labour laws.”

The kafala system means migrant workers are unable to leave the country or change jobs without their employers’ permission.

In one case, Amnesty’s report says Nepalese workers employed by a company delivering critical supplies to a construction project associated with the planned FIFA headquarters during the World Cup described how they were “treated like cattle”.

Construction projects

Other workers were said to be living in constant fear of losing everything: threatened with penalty fines, deportation or loss of income if they did not show up to work, even though they were allegedly not being paid anyway.

In a statement Shetty said: “Our findings indicate an alarming level of exploitation in the construction sector in Qatar. FIFA has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup.”

Many workers were apparently on the brink of suicide due to the psychological distress of their conditions. One Nepalese construction worker, unpaid for seven months and prevented from leaving Qatar for three months, told Amnesty; “Please tell me – is there any way to get out of here? We are going totally mad.”

With the construction of the Al Wakrah Stadium due to begin in January, Qatar 2022 announced on Saturday that it was implementing new and robust safety measures to be enforced on all contractors involved in World Cup projects.

Hassan Al Thawadi, general-secretary of Qatar 2022, also pledged the highest standard of health and security. This is specifically pertinent given that, earlier this year, a representative of Doha’s main hospital revealed that more than 1,000 people were admitted to the trauma unit in 2012 having fallen from height at work.

Alcohol provision

The research makes grim reading and comes as a result of the massively increased focus on the Gulf state following the awarding of the World Cup hosting rights by FIFA in December 2010.

Some high-status sectors in Qatar consider themselves vindicated in their original reservations about bidding for the World Cup with its compromise on the provision of alcohol zones and scrapping of politically-influenced border controls.

Too late.

As Shetty said: “The world’s spotlight will continue to shine of Qatar in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup offering the government a unique chance to demonstrate on a global stage that it is serious about its commitment to human rights and can act as a role model to the rest of the region.”

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