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Qatar: The world is watching

JOHN MANN MP on why we must all stand up for Qatar's migrant workers

n 2010, when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, the shock and accusations of corruption were immediately followed by a string of questions, as journalists and football fans quickly googled the oil-rich Arab state.

The questions generally followed two main themes - how would footballers play in temperatures of up to 50?C, and how would fans be treated at the first cup in the Middle East - would they, for example, have ready access to alcohol?

But slowly mainstream media outlets are coming to the realisation that there are more serious issues surrounding Qatar than whether travelling England fans can drown their sorrows or if the tournament should be moved to the winter months.

It is becoming increasingly clear that while the current construction boom in Qatar is financed by oil, a heavy price is being paid by the 1.3 million foreign nationals who work in the country, making up 94 per cent of the total workforce.

Reports that hundreds of Nepalese and Indian workers have died in Qatar since 2010 have added to the evidence collected by groups such as Amnesty International of serious human rights abuses.

These abuses come mainly from the kafala system where workers are "sponsored" by the company that they work for. Nine in 10 migrant workers have their passports taken from them by their employers upon arrival, leaving workers from Nepal, India and Sri Lanka at the mercy of their employers.

The system amounts to serious and endemic exploitation.

Accommodation is cramped and often insanitary - over half of workers surveyed by Amnesty International do not have access to basic healthcare provisions.

Given that workers cannot join or form trade unions, it is perhaps unsurprising that 20 per cent of migrant workers receive a different salary to the one they were promised when they left their home country and 15 per cent are working in an entirely different job to the one they expected.

At the most serious end of the scale of abuse in Qatar, some workers face a multitude of problems all at once.

They may not be paid for six to nine months, cannot leave the country, live in what the BBC has described as "cockroach-infested" accommodation, have a serious injury and limited access to food - not to mention the distress caused by not being able to send money back to family members at home.

The response of the Qatari authorities has been to protest at what they claim is a scheme to rob Qatar of the World Cup and to point out that it is unclear how many of the workers involved were directly involved in tournament projects.

Moreover, they claim that the "Workers' Welfare Standards" charter released by organisers last month will address most of the issues currently being raised, but that most problems are "local issues."

But this response does not seem to hold up to closer scrutiny.

The first issue is that the new standards only cover designated "World Cup sites" - a worker fitting seats inside a stadium will be covered, according to the World Cup Supreme Committee, but those building the roads to the grounds or working inside fans' hotels will not.

The narrow definition means only 79 workers in all of Qatar are currently covered - this number will increase significantly as work progresses, but how much use the charter will be in practice remains questionable.

Claims that current abuses are mainly "local issues" do not reflect reality.

The issues for migrant workers are mostly systematic and the laws that do exist to protect them are rarely enforced.

International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow has dismissed Qatar's claims of improvements as a "sham."

The question now for those wanting to see drastic improvements for migrant workers in Qatar is how best to go about achieving that.

There are of course substantial risks, particularly for Western politicians and the media - not least as we are open to accusations of paternalist interference in a culture of which we may only have a limited understanding.

I have tabled a House of Commons early day motion calling for stronger action from Fifa and the Qatari government, that already has the support of 25 MPs.

As coverage of the issue increases so will parliamentary support, and with that will come the opportunity to productively engage with Qatar - to praise improvements in workers' conditions while continually highlighting the considerable changes still required.

We can add the expertise we have gained by delivering such a successful and safe Olympic games.

Crucially, Fifa can make a serious difference by encouraging Qatar to expand its definition of a "World Cup site" and with it vastly increase the number of workers covered by the welfare standards.

If co-operation from Qatar is not forthcoming, the situation is likely to deteriorate substantially.

It has been estimated that a further million workers will be needed before 2022 to help complete the infrastructure Qatar intends to put in place.

Without significant improvements, it is likely that thousands of migrant workers will die or be seriously injured and hundreds of thousands will suffer human rights abuses.

At some point the World Cup itself may become the only bargaining chip Fifa and Western governments will have in Qatar, and already some groups are calling for the 2022 World Cup to be held elsewhere.

This would of course represent a serious failure, and do nothing to improve the lives of the migrant workers already employed in Qatar on other vast infrastructure projects.

Both Qatar and the West have a choice - engage, understand the realities of our differences but recognise the universality of essential workers' rights or fail to act and be responsible for a World Cup built by millions of workers living almost as slaves.

 

nJohn Mann is Labour MP for Bassetlaw

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