[Marxism] Was FIFA anti-imperialist? Tell that to migrant workers in Qatar

Louis Proyect 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

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 
with abuses.

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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