Claims that migrant workers are treated like slaves in 2022 World Cup host Qatar were centre stage on Thursday as global football's governing body FIFA met behind closed doors.
Already scheduled to debate shifting the 2022 edition from the World Cup’s traditional June and July slot in order to escape the stifling Gulf heat — a plan which has angered European leagues that fear mid-season havoc — FIFA found the spotlight shifting to alleged human rights abuses against the workers paving the pay for the tournament.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter was scheduled to brief journalists on Friday about the outcome of its two-day executive committee session at its Zurich base.
But with campaigners charging that workers are paying with their lives to prepare for the global football showcase, both FIFA and Qatar tackled the concerns with waiting reporters.
With Qatar’s actual stadium-building programme yet to begin, the deaths are not directly related to the football side of the World Cup, FIFA communications chief Walter De Gregorio underlined.
“But any death is a death too many,” he said. “We are very much aware of the situation.”
“Together, I think, we’re going to find a solution to improve, or maybe to change, the situation that for sure, for everybody, is unacceptable,” he said.
FIFA has held regular discussions with international human rights groups and unions for two years, De Gregorio noted.
“We’re trying to put pressure on Qatar to change a situation which is unacceptable for all concerned. But I want to highlight that it’s not FIFA against Qatar. We’re all on the same page, trying to change the situation for the better of everyone. Qatar can change, and Qatar is very open to all discussions we’re having,” he added.
Hassan Al Thawadi, head of Qatar’s World Cup committee, said worker deaths were a stark issue and insisted the government was dealing with it.
“When you reach the point where people die, it always raises issues of humanity. Is this acceptable? Of course it isn’t. The government has said so quite clearly,” he said as he arrived at FIFA’s building in a leafy suburb overlooking Zurich.
“We are going to ensure the security, the protection and the honour of everyone. We’ve worked to that pledge, will continue to do so, and will always give it the utmost priority,” he added.
The rights issue reached fever pitch after a report last week by British daily The Guardian on Nepalese workers at World Cup projects.
Quoting documents from Nepal’s embassy in Qatar it said thousands of Nepalese — at 370,000 the second largest group of labourers in Qatar after Indians — faced “modern-day slavery” and that dozens had died in recent weeks.
Beyond the fatalities, critics also slam the confiscation of passports, withholding wages for long periods, debts to recruiters, insufficient drinking water in scorching temperatures, and squalid camps for labourers.
The World Cup has added intensity to ongoing criticism of several Gulf states’ rules on foreign workers.
Amnesty International said it would publish an in-depth report next month on Qatar, the world’s wealthiest nation per capita.
“The combination of forms of exploitation in certain cases that we have documented, we would consider that to amount to forced labour,” James Lynch, Amnesty’s researcher on foreign workers in the Gulf, told AFP.
Four dozen Swiss and international trade union activists hammered home the message by rallying at FIFA’s gates, brandishing referee-style red cards.
Qatar denies the claims.
“There is no slavery or forced labour in Qatar,” said Ali al-Marri, chairman of its National Human Rights Committee.
Qatar has commissioned a probe by global law firm DLA Piper, saying it takes its international commitments seriously, and announced plans to double its number of labour inspectors to 150.
That failed to satisfy that International Trade Union Confederation, which raised the alarm in August and is sending a delegation to Qatar next week.
“There are already labour inspectors and they have no impact,” said its head Sharan Burrow.
“The construction frenzy for the football World Cup risks costing the lives of at least 4,000 workers over the next seven years if steps are not taken to guarantee the rights of migrant workers,” she added.