[Marxism] Was FIFA anti-imperialist? Tell that to migrant workers in Qatar
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 17 09:24:55 MDT 2015
NY Times, July 16 2015
Labor Scrutiny for FIFA as a World Cup Rises in the Qatar Desert
By BARRY MEIER
When a law firm hired by Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, issued a
report last year urging reforms in the treatment of migrant construction
workers there, human rights groups expected the tiny oil-rich Persian
Gulf nation to respond quickly.
But more than 15 months later, critics say, many of the report’s major
recommendations remain unaddressed, and thousands of foreign laborers
continue to work in Qatar under conditions akin to indentured servitude.
The report, by the law firm DLA Piper, called for, among other things,
eliminating the collection of exorbitant fees paid by workers to secure
jobs and rules preventing them from changing jobs or leaving the country.
A United States Senate subcommittee examined those issues on Wednesday
as part of a hearing into the corruption scandal surrounding FIFA,
soccer’s international governing body. The panel also heard testimony in
a continuing debate over the causes of worker deaths in Qatar.
FIFA’s “culture of corruption is turning a blind eye to significant
human rights violations and the tragic loss of lives,” said Senator
Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the Senate Commerce
subcommittee on consumer protection.
As the FIFA controversy grows, major American construction companies
working in Qatar and other gulf nations are also being drawn into the
debate about labor practices in the region.
Sunjeev Bery, an Amnesty International official who testified at the
hearing, said construction firms had an obligation to address
mistreatment of workers. “Companies and employers have a responsibility
to prevent abuses even if they do not directly contribute to them,” he said.
Several companies based in the United States, such as CH2M Hill, Aecom
and Bechtel, are involved in building either World Cup-related sites in
Qatar or other major projects in gulf states, like the United Arab
Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that rely heavily on migrant laborers. In
Qatar, migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and the Philippines
account for nearly all the labor force.
While these laborers are not directly employed by the American
companies, thousands of them work on projects the companies manage or
oversee. As a result, American construction companies face labor issues
similar to the ones confronting United States clothing or technology
businesses that profit from cheap labor abroad, said Michael Pullen, a
lawyer formerly with DLA Piper who headed the firm’s inquiry in Qatar.
“There is a lot more they could do to make sure that their
subcontractors comply with international standards,” said Mr. Pullen,
who now works for a law firm in London.
Some companies have sought to respond to the criticism. CH2M, the
overall project manager for the planned World Cup stadium, recently
introduced a set of global worker welfare policies. The company, whose
headquarters are in Englewood, Colo., has also met over the last year
with human rights groups and others seeking to improve labor practices
in the gulf region.
CH2M declined to make executives available to comment, but a company
spokesman, John Corsi, said it was using its “influence to advance the
welfare of workers in the construction sector and applying international
best practices to projects around the world.” Aecom and Bechtel said in
statements that they supported the highest worker safety standards
wherever they operate.
Jill Wells, an official of Engineers Against Poverty, an advocacy group
in Britain, described the guidelines issued by CH2M as commendable. But,
she said, the company’s actions were unlikely to have much practical
impact because construction companies passed responsibility for worker
welfare down to subcontractors.
“What the main contractors do is pass the risk down the subcontracting
chain, and it is the workers on the bottom of the chain” who bear it,
Ms. Wells said.
When Sepp Blatter, the outgoing president of FIFA, who recently resigned
after the indictment of nine FIFA officials on corruption charges,
announced in 2010 that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar, it was
the first time an Arab state had been picked to host the soccer
tournament. Now Swiss investigators are looking into whether payments
were made to influence the decision.
Labor practices in Qatar and other gulf countries are based on the
“kafala” system, under which an employer sponsors a foreign worker. For
years, advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch have complained that the arrangement exploits workers and is rife
Unskilled workers living in places such as India and Nepal may pay fees
equaling a year’s salary to labor recruiters in their homelands to get
jobs in gulf countries. The workers then fall into debt because, to pay
those fees, they take out loans from recruiters at interest rates of 30
percent or more.
But the jobs they get may be different from and pay less than the ones
they were promised. And workers are effectively chained to those
positions because they need permission from their employers to change jobs.
After reports by human rights groups and a series of articles in The
Guardian, Qatar hired DLA Piper in 2013 to examine the country’s labor
practices and make recommendations for changes.
Officials in Qatar have said that companies building World Cup stadiums
will be held to higher standards of worker treatment, and proposed
changes to the kafala system are undergoing legislative review. In a
statement, a government spokesman said the country had also put into
place other safeguards, such as electronic payment of workers’ salaries,
and had built modern accommodations for migrant laborers.
Mr. Pullen, the former DLA lawyer, said he believed Qatar had taken
steps to improve conditions but added that the pace of change remained
slow and that it was impossible to know, given the country’s lack of
transparency, how much of the kafala system it planned to change.
Labor activists and officials in Qatar are also making competing claims
about the scope and causes of migrant worker deaths in the country.
Experts say both sides are making contentions that appear to have little
In a 2014 study, the International Trade Union Confederation, a labor
group, estimated that 4,000 migrant workers could die before the start
of the 2022 World Cup. To reach that figure, the group took the number
of deaths of workers from India and Nepal reported to those countries’
embassies in Qatar over a three-year period and extrapolated that figure
against a projected increase of 500,000 foreign laborers in Qatar’s work
force in coming years.
Other researchers say the figure lacks factual support because it is
unclear how the reported deaths occurred.
To rebut the trade union group’s contentions, officials in Qatar issued
a statement last month claiming that the rate and causes of death among
migrant laborers in their country was similar to those found among
similar populations in the workers’ homelands, adding that 42 percent of
worker deaths in Qatar were attributed to cardiovascular causes. In
making the comparison, officials in Qatar said they drew on data
published by the Global Burden of Disease project, an international
research effort that monitors death and disease trends around the world.
But Theo Vos, a professor at the University of Washington who works on
the project, said that Qatar’s claims were meaningless because
researchers considered deaths from cardiac arrest to be a “garbage code”
that was not specific enough to describe the true cause of death. He
also said that the rate of reported workplace deaths in Qatar appeared
somewhat elevated compared with the rates in countries like India.
In its report, DLA Piper urged officials in Qatar to begin a scientific
study to determine foreign workers’ causes of death, because autopsies
were not performed. Mr. Pullen said he did not believe that Qatar had
yet acted on that recommendation.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Mr. Bery of Amnesty International said Qatar’s
failure to investigate the deaths showed “a lack of interest in finding
out the answers.”
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