Qatar 2022: all sing together, ITUC or anyone, they’ll never defeat us, we’ll fight till the day is won …
As the Premiership comes to another action-packed conclusion - or not - I imagine football fans’ thoughts are turning to ... actually, god knows what they’re turning to. Not being an enthusiast of the precious art of booting a leather sphere around an overly-tended rectangle of grass (ha!), I wouldn’t know. It’s probably the Champions League play-offs, or the actual Champions League (where all those extremely good non-British teams do their stuff), or something like the Africa Cup of Nations. Or maybe football types are already hankering after a bit of bona fide World Cup action, a tournament where England draw their opening qualifying game 0-0, lose the next one and need to not lose the final one (only to lose it).
Yes, the World Cup, there’s nothing like it. And there are only 3,072 days left before the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. OK, I guessed that figure, but it’s something like that. Seven-and-a-half years (now that it’s being played in the winter). Obviously there’s Russia 2018 before that (which will be interesting for numerous reasons), but Qatar’s the one that people like me (non-football fans) are going on about.
The situation’s clear enough: on top of allegations of corruption in the original bidding process, the big issue is the exploitation and endangerment of thousands of migrant workers building Qatar’s football infrastructure. It’s received acres (football field’s worth?) of coverage and the Qatari authorities have, under pressure, promised improvements. Promised, but not delivered. Amnesty has just produced a “scorecard” of nine key areas that need urgent reform (things like whether workers’ passports are confiscated, whether they’re allowed to form a trade union, or whether the “kafala” employment system will still tie workers to specific employers) and marked the Qatari authorities on their performance since promises were made a year ago. Look away now if you don’t want to know the score …
It’s a resounding defeat for the workers. In five areas there has been limited progress. In four areas there’s been … nothing at all. After all the pressure and all the promises.
In fact Qatar seems at least as determined to change the story as it is the reality. So it’s been taking journalists on guided tours of newly-built accommodation buildings for migrant workers then reacting angrily when some of them try to break away from the tour parties to see what the not-so-new ones are like. Arresting a four-person BBC crew for doing precisely this recently wasn’t just a lumbering PR own goal, it reveals a mind-set which still doesn’t seem to understand that hosting an international sporting event of this magnitude brings with it a lot of scrutiny.
If there’s a touch of the Potemkin village about all this, I think it’s because the Qatari authorities tend to mix a high-handed money-buys-everything-ness (the Shard, Canary Wharf, expensive public relations company Portland Communications) and a streak of authoritarianism that - for example - finds it acceptable to sentence a poet to life imprisonment.
Where all this is going is difficult to determine. Time is running out over meaningful reforms ahead of 2022. There have already been hundreds of worker deaths and injuries and Playfair and the ITUC and others have been trying to create a little moral pressure on big commercial sponsors like Adidas and Visa (not to mention well-known health-and-fitness-friendly companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Budweiser).
And then there’s FIFA itself, that old bogeyman of sporting governance. FIFA’s current president Sepp Blatter seems all but deaf to entreaties to do more on things like labour standards (see Marina Hyde’s latest savaging of Blatter here) and - away from Qatar - his recent proposal for a “peace match” between Israel and Palestine seems to me typical of the vacuousness of so many FIFA initiatives (the deeper reasons why football itself is indeed a political football for Palestinians are well explored by Harriet Salem here). Meanwhile, a recent attempt by a coalition of campaigners to procure pledges over human rights from those hoping to replace Blatter as FIFA president has met with only limited success. More own-goalery.
No, Qatar’s deep-seated labour issues are going to take a lot of sorting out. Millions of overseas workers will continue to risk being cheated, underpaid, overworked, maimed through injury and even killed while they slog through their long hot days building the stadia and associated infrastructure for this football jamboree. Meanwhile, we’re likely to get more and more puff stories about Qatar’s “model” accommodation blocks and worker villages. Qatari ministers and PR companies will be singing from their same hymn sheet. If they all sing together, maybe they can blot out the bad news …
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.