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Focusing Minds on the Human Suffering in Qatar

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Today I joined trade union health and safety campaigners protesting outside the London Embassy of the Gulf state of Qatar. As part of International Workers' Memorial Day, we were challenging the richest country in the world to stop exploiting and killing migrant construction workers building the infrastructure for the world's richest sporting competition, the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

Personally, I don't know how Fifa president Sepp Blatter and his officials sleep at night. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), up to 4,000 innocent workers involved in construction projects in Qatar could die before a single ball is kicked for the 2022 World Cup finals.

Last December, I saw a labourers' camp first hand in an industrial area far from Doha's gleaming high rise city. The conditions were indescribable: clearly unfit for human habitation. I've been haunted by what I've seen ever since.

Monday (28 April) is International Workers' Memorial Day, a day to remember those that died needlessly at work and to fight for the living. And it's a day when we remind those in power that safety at work isn't a luxury. Every worker who goes out to work has a right to come home as healthy as they left.

Nor is health and safety at work a matter of luck. The 2012 London Olympics had its problems but there was not a single fatality during the construction of the stadiums because unions, including my union Unite, were involved from the outset.

So why is it taking Sepp Blatter and the rest of Fifa so long to take the necessary steps to end the shocking deaths and horrific exploitation in Qatar? It is time for Fifa to fight for the living and to demand an end to what is happening in Qatar.

Trade unionists, politicians, journalists, charities and numerous international observers have expressed their shock and disgust at what they have seen in Qatar.

Thousands of workers from countries including India and Nepal have travelled to Qatar to work in what is effectively slavery or bonded labour to try to support themselves and their families.

I saw workers still queuing at 10pm for their turn at a cooking hob. Bear in mind most rise at 4am in the morning to do a hard, physical job in appalling heat. Cleanliness is beyond human effort as the facilities are so inadequate, yet remarkably the workers do wash up, launder and care for themselves rising above the indignities hurled at them.

Workers explained their circumstances. As we sat with them in the terribly overcrowded 'bedrooms' many wept from sheer frustration. Returning home to massive debts chalked up by payment to labour agents is a humiliating prospect that has led some migrant workers to take their own lives. Agents actively recruit workers in poverty stricken and jobless countries. I wondered about the men I met who will return home alive or uninjured, who will repay their debt and who will survive the shame if they "fail".

I looked workers in the eye and felt immense anger at the betrayal of their human rights. In their faces I saw features similar to people I know, friends and family. Familiar gestures and expressions and you have to ask yourself, is this what we would want for our brothers, sons or parents?

International Workers' Memorial Day is an important reminder of the link between the scandal of what is happening today in Qatar, and tragedies like the deaths of 1138 workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse just over a year ago on 24 April 2013 in Bangladesh and the similarly avoidable deaths of construction workers in the UK. Only the scale of the carnage is different.

In Qatar, the migrant construction workers I met - and the migrant domestic workers whose heart-breaking stories were reported recently by Amnesty International - are not even allowed to join trade unions. In Bangladesh, they can, but many are too frightened because of the harassment victimisation and even death that union organisers face. That leaves workers unable to refuse working in dangerous conditions, which is why so many reported for work at Rana Plaza despite the visible cracks in the structure.

Employer attempts to keep unions out to maximise profits are a global phenomenon. Only five years ago a secret blacklist held by UK construction employers was discovered with over 3,000 names on it. The blacklist was used by a significant number of employers to exclude workers from construction sites just because they raised concerns about health and safety.

But the evidence shows that trade union workplaces are safer workplaces. So many workplace deaths and accidents could have been prevented through allowing strong trade unions to play a genuine role on the ground and to be involved in health and safety decisions from the outset.

Surely Qatar, as the richest country in the world where the average salary for Qataris is around £60,000 a year, can afford to give its migrant construction workers dignity, fair pay and a guarantee that it will do everything possible to ensure workers return home safely?

In December last year Sepp Blatter was quick off the mark to pay tribute to the greatness of Nelson Mandela when he sadly passed away. The Fifa president said that "Nelson Mandela will stay in our hearts forever. The memories of his remarkable fight against oppression, his incredible charisma and his positive values will live on in us and with us."

Sadly, the Fifa president has been much slower off the mark to put those words into action when under his very watch there is terrible oppression taking place in Qatar. He and his officials have the power to stop the football pitches for the 2022 World Cup from becoming a graveyard.

The 'beautiful game' has become blood stained and ugly. Fifa must be prepared to strip the richest country in the world of the 2022 World Cup. There can be no 2022 World Cup in Qatar without workers' rights.

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