Qatar 2022 has sparked a building frenzy in the world’s richest country with an estimated 1,100 workers dying during construction. Stephen Russell from the TUC's Playfair Qatar explains what fans can do to make their concerns known about that and the country's "kafala" system...
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Forget the heat, the corruption and even the accusations of terrorist funding – the biggest scandal of the 2022 Qatar World Cup is the fate of the 4,000 workers likely to die there before the first ball is kicked.
Qatar wants to dazzle the world with its wealth and create the image of an enlightened modern nation – and it has chosen football as the means to do it. Fans have a chance to stop the game being used as cover for slavery and send the message that it’s time for Qatar to play by the rules.
From worries about the summer heat to the ongoing rumblings about corruption, not to mention very little evidence of the enthusiasm of Qatar’s citizens, the tiny Middle Eastern emirate felt like an odd fit for football’s premier competition. But it was a little while before the final aspect of Qatar’s stewardship became entirely clear.
The 2022 World Cup kills people - yet Fifa and Qatar's rulers think they can get away with this. They’ve thrown us a few promises here and there, but they never deliver. Labour laws in Qatar are being overseen by the worst referees in history, but with your help we can force them to blow the whistle.
This is what's happening...
Putting on a World Cup doesn’t just involve building a few stadiums, it also involves building Qatar: a lot of Qatar. Take a look at a picture of Qatar at night and you see that at the moment Qatar is little more than Doha, a couple of small outlying urban centres and a gigantic camel race track.
To host the World Cup, Qatar plans a massive building programme, including a huge expansion north of Doha to create an entire city, essentially from scratch. It’s this city, Lusail, that is expected to host the World Cup final.
The 280,000 Qatari citizens won’t build the roads, railways, sewers, hotels, airports, power stations and everything else. Instead, the tiny state brings in hundreds of thousands of workers from Asia and Africa to create a migrant workforce of staggering size. Importing 1.5m workers to Qatar is a bit like Britain shipping the entire population of the United States over to work for us.
Perhaps understandably, Qatar is a little nervous about the vast foreign force it relies on, but its response – a system of sponsorship called kafala – doesn’t just stop the workers from rising up and overthrowing the state, it also traps them in deadly situations.
Kafala puts workers entirely in the power of their employers. Their wages can be slashed to half of what was promised, they can be crammed into roasting tin shacks to sleep and given salty water to drink, they can go unpaid for months at a time and be forced to risk their lives on terrifying construction sites. And if they don’t like it? Tough.
A worker that doesn’t want to risk his life, or demands his wages, or complains that he can’t drink the water, won’t get to change employers and if he pushes the issue will probably end up in jail. Because kafala is slavery.
Under kafala, your employer decides if you can have a visa to leave the country or permission to go to work for someone else. If he withholds that permission, you have one choice – stay and put up with it, or face the consequences. Those consequences will involve you losing your right to stay in the country, but at the same time not being allowed to leave it. A worker without the right papers will be locked up, often for more than a year.
To make it worse, exploitative recruitment agencies will already have charged workers hundreds of pounds to get jobs that turn out to be worth a fraction of what was promised. In debt, in danger and in desperation, people have nowhere to turn. To escape this horrible choice, scores of foreign workers kill themselves.
It’s not just construction workers that face this cruel tactic. Footballers Abdes Ouaddou (formerly of Fulham) and Zahir Belounis, both found themselves victims of kafala when they demanded to be paid the wages due to them.
"When you work in Qatar you belong to someone. You are not free. You are a slave," said Ouaddou.
Unlike a labourer from Nepal or India, Ouaddou and Belounis had contacts and supporters, but even the intervention of the French President couldn’t free them. Ouaddou eventually won his battle and now speaks out against the Qatar World Cup, but Belounis – although at last back home – has yet to see a penny.
All the while Fifa, so happy to force countries to change their laws for previous tournaments to protect income from marketing and tourism, professes its helplessness to stop foul play in Qatar.
In response to international pressure, Qatar has promised a string of new laws to protect workers but not one employer has been prosecuted for breaking them. Migrant workers, however, remain barred from forming unions, and two British researchers investigating conditions for Nepalese labourers were snatched from the streets and imprisoned for 10 days before anyone was informed.
Qatar is pulling the world’s most expensive PR stunt on the backs of slaves. It defies decency. They can only think that fans will either not know or not care about what is being done in football’s name. We have a chance to show them this isn’t true.
The Playfair Qatar campaign was created to demand that Qatar either lives up to its promises and looks after workers, or face of the anger of football fans, the very people they were hoping to impress. We think Qatar will take the necessary steps to save face and preserve its sponsorship deals by doing the right thing.
Help make it happen.
Playfair Qatar’s first task is to show that football supporters from across the country both know and care. You can show your support for the campaign by downloading a sign or two here and taking photos to show you back Playfair Qatar. If we can show support from fans from across (and outside) the leagues, and up and down the country, we can build a voice that Qatar cannot ignore.
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