The Blog

Which Side of History Will FIFA Be on in the March to End Slavery in Qatar?

Qatar is a slave state for 1.4million migrant workers. It doesn't have to be that way. Qatar chooses to build its modern nation with the labour of migrant workers and deliberately chooses to maintain a system that treats these workers as less than human.

Two men with a passion for football sat alongside each other in an unlikely venue last week. Not in a stadium, on a football pitch, or in a sports bar. Instead they took the stage in a cavernous room in Brussels, home of the European Parliament.

Both men were called to give evidence to parliamentarians about the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

One a professional footballer, the other a FIFA Executive committee member - together they have found themselves embroiled in a global dispute about the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar.

One has the skills and passion of a player, the other the power and resources of FIFA at his fingertips.

But only one of these men has the courage to take up the fight for workers in Qatar and call for the end of the kafala system that enslaves workers.

Zahir Belounis captained his Qatari team to the top of the league, but became a victim of modern-day slavery in Qatar when his club refused to pay his outstanding salary and then refused to sign an exit visa allowing him to leave the country.

Now free from Qatar, he has taken up the fight for all workers in Qatar who are trapped in a feudal system that locks men and women inside the country with no rights and no voice.

The kafala system is not for our time, I went through two years of torture

Zahir told parliamentarians in a speech tinged with the emotion of a man who is a survivor.

Dr Theo Zwanziger has been charged by FIFA President Sepp Blatter with discussing the issue of labour rights in Qatar with the government, companies, the ILO and the ITUC.

Their first demand on Qatar has resulted in the publication of fifty pages of sham workplace conditions which reinforce kafala and offer no enforcement or rights for workers, published on the eve of the Parliament hearing, after a two-week deadline set by FIFA Qatar.

Dr Zwanziger remains tight lipped on calling for the abolishment for kafala as a condition of Qatar hosting the World Cup in 2022. Instead maintaining the spotlight from the World Cup on labour conditions is enough for FIFA.

Meanwhile the International Labour Organisation eloquently demonstrated the need for workers in Qatar to have a voice without fear of retaliation.

New measures for living conditions and ethical recruitment can be put in place, but if workers do not have a way of expressing problems without fear, those measures will not be effective. If workers do not have a means to raise issues happening on the ground, you can have auditing mechanisms but the reports will not reflect reality

ILO Deputy Director-General Gilbert Houngbo told the European Parliament.

Qatar is a slave state for 1.4million migrant workers. It doesn't have to be that way. Qatar chooses to build its modern nation with the labour of migrant workers and deliberately chooses to maintain a system that treats these workers as less than human.

Qatar could choose to:

  • end the kafala system;
  • introduce laws to allow freedom of association and collective bargaining so these workers have a voice;
  • put in place an effective labour dispute settling process;
  • clean up the corrupt recruitment system and work with reputable international recruitment companies;
  • end the racially based system of wages with a non-discriminate minimum wage for all workers.

If the Qatari authorities wanted to change the international agencies including the International Labour Organisation, governments and the ITUC would help them.

Tragically migrants desperately seeking the dignity of work leave their countries accepting the burden of illegal fees and sign a contract that is most likely to be torn up for one with less than half the promised wages on arrival.

Then they find themselves living in the squalor of labour camps where eight to twelve grown men share a tiny room too often without clean drinking water and hygienic sanitation and cooking facilities.

Workers are effectively the property of another human being and are often abused, beaten and denied wages for months on end.

If it all becomes too much and they run away, they are branded "absconders", picked up by the police and imprisoned. Even the choice to return home is in the hands of the employers who won't sign an exit visa or pay return tickets.

And the court system is totally ineffective with prolonged processes of two years or more - years without money, housing and hope.

One woman was beaten senseless for two years, her body and face a map of torture. She was rescued by a courageous driver and a generous expat working in Qatar who took her to the hospital where even seasoned medical staff were reduced to tears.

Multiple operations including head surgery gave her a fighting chance, but her employer is yet to be punished.

In the words of another man:

When eventually I was allowed to take my vacation, and with my employment contract saying I have thirty days paid leave, the company deducted my salary during my annual leave.

Now six months later they still have not paid me my entitlement. I did try to request from the company a 'No Objection Certificate ' (NOC) allowing me to work for another employer in Qatar if they are unable to give me my basic rights.

But the company refused to give me NOC to move even though I did get an offer of work from another company.

I took advice from the Qatar National Human Rights Committee, but they said the company have the right to not give me an NOC. They just told me to make a complaint to the labour department if I have any issue related to salary and annual leave.

There is nowhere for people to go.

We have seen this for the victims of the Villaggio nursery fire where 13 children and six adults died, where an owner has impunity here as an ambassador to the EU and where years on the parents wait for justice and compensation.

I have spoken to hundreds of workers denied basic rights, scared, depressed and bitter.

FIFA knows this is the situation in which they placed the 2022 World Cup. We had some heart when Sepp Blatter on 21 November, 2013, called on

economic and social leaders to join the football community in contributing to ensure that the ILO's core labour standards are introduced quickly, consistently and on a sustained basis in Qatar.

Tragically the charter from FIFA's local organising committee consists of sham provisions.

It promises health and safety systems but provides no legal compliance system. It relies on self-auditing and makes it clear in a disclaimer at the end that it is not going to punish companies.

It promises employment standards but there is no commitment to allow workers to join a trade union or bargain collectively.

It promises equality but doesn't even commit to establish a non-discriminatory minimum wage.

It does not mention workplace 'heat' in a country where extreme heat kills workers.

There is no system to record deaths and ensure autopsies.

And it makes no recommendation to the Government to end the kafala system.

And there is no responsibility for the underpinning infrastructure despite the escalating death toll.

Our conservative estimate, based on just two countries' data - Nepal and India's death tallies - is that more than 4,000 more workers will die before a ball is kicked in 2022.

And finally - sadly we have seen these provisions promised before. The Qatar Foundation released a similar charter last year, but nothing changed.

The Qatar Foundation promotes itself as a progressive institution, but the Qatar Foundation itself has trapped former employees Mahmoud Bouneb and Malika Alounae, invited in by the former Emir's wife to set up the must applauded Al Jazeera children's channel. Yet they refuse to sign exit visas and pay benefits.

No worker can assume their freedom.

The international community must act. Qatar must change. FIFA must rerun the vote for the 2022 World Cup if Qatar does not change its ways. Which side of history will FIFA be on?