By Sharan Burrow
Life for a migrant worker under Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system means living under your employer’s total control over every aspect of your existence – from opening a bank account to changing jobs, and even being allowed to leave the country.
This corrupt system starts with recruitment under false pretences in their home countries and entraps them once they set foot in Qatar. Talking to workers in the squalid labour camps has brought home to me how these proud young men, who have left home to build a future, are deprived of dignity and treated in the most inhumane way. Worse, in the years that I’ve been visiting the camps, nothing has changed.
Hundreds of these workers succumb every year to the appalling living and working conditions, returning to their home countries in coffins, their deaths callously written off as the price of progress.
The world’s richest country is spending £400m a week on the huge infrastructure programme for 2022, but paying the workers who are making it happen as little as £8 a day. There is no minimum wage, no unions are allowed and even basic protections at work are lacking for most.
Winning the World Cup bid could have been a catalyst for change in Qatar, but it has not been yet. Certainly, nothing has improved for the families of the 13 workers who died in a company labour camp fire last June, or for the 500 workers who lost all their possessions in two more labour camp fires this year. They were offered only $50 in compensation and had to rely on charity for food, clothes and bedding.
Qatar’s PR machine is still unable to hide the truth. Its government told the UN’s International Labour Organisation this month that the exit permit regime for migrant workers has been repealed – a blatant lie.
Workers still have to get their employer’s permission to change jobs and even to leave the country. Appeals to a government committee are being refused at a rate of five a day. Workers learn by text message if they can leave the country or not, and many have been waiting for a month for a decision. The fate of French footballer Zahir Belounis, who was trapped in Qatar for 19 months by his club’s owners after a wage dispute, can befall any one of the nearly 2 million migrant workers there, at any time.
At the ILO, worker and employer delegates are keeping up the pressure on Qatar. Indeed, some multinational construction companies seeking improvement want to negotiate with the global construction union Building and Woodworkers International. But the government won’t allow even that.
Right now, countries need to stand up at the ILO and elsewhere to Qatar’s financial muscle and oppose its use of modern slavery. Those that don’t will be held to account.
The Qatari government has repeatedly failed to keep its pledge to reform in the years since it was awarded the World Cup. Each time I have spoken to government representatives, promises are made – but usually the same promises they made the last time we spoke.
Fifa, too, has a heavy burden of responsibility, by not making real reform a requirement for hosting its most prestigious and profitable event. Players and fans do care if the tournament is delivered on the basis of slavery, exploitation and death.
Fifa and other global sports bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee, are making human rights a requirement in future bids for major events but, right now, Qatar’s migrant workers urgently need real backing from football’s ultimate authority, as it strives to revive its battered reputation.
Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.
This article was published on The Guardian's website on March 18, 2017.