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Yesterday marked 11 years since Joseph Blatter, former FIFA president, announced that Qatar would be the first Arab country to host one of the most important sporting events on the planet: the World Cup.
After Brazil 2014, many did not expect that Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) would be the countries to host the next World Cup, ahead of the other candidates—namely England, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, the United States, South Korea and Japan. However, after South Africa (2010) became the host, there was no suspicion with the choice. “FIFA likes novelty,” said a BBC article 11 years ago.
It would not be long before the castle of corruption between Qatar and FIFA would come tumbling down like a house of cards.
The scandals of the alleged bribes by Mohamed bin Hammam—the highest soccer executive in Qatar until 2011 and who was the key man for the election of Qatar as host, revealed by France Football in 2013 with the “Qatargate” case—shed light on how the Arab country came to have the responsibility of organizing a World Cup, despite being classified as a risky venue due to temperature problems in summer, human rights violations and the risk of terrorist attacks.
The choice of Qatar turned out to be not only corrupt but also a reputational misstep for FIFA. Important FIFA leaders, such as Michel Platini, were arrested or suspended from all FIFA-related activities for several years. FIFA was also strongly questioned by international organizations that fight for human rights after Qatar’s selection. The press also joined the campaign and echoed the organizations’ denunciations.
Former president Blatter was forced to publicly explain that he never agreed with the choice of Qatar as the host country, calling its designation a “mistake.“
The kafala system and labor abuses: Qatar’s great debt
Eleven years have passed, Qatar managed to solve the climate problems by changing the date of the World Cup to the months of November and December, but still no progress is seen in the Arab country in terms of workers’ rights.
Amnesty International’s most recent report details how Qatar has “stalled” its ambitious labor reform introduced in 2017.
In theory, the reform was meant to end labor abuses by local employers against migrant workers, who represent 90% of the workforce. But it didn’t happen, at least for the time being.
According to the report, Qatar pledged to eliminate and replace the controversial kafala [sponsorship] system with a contractual employment system, which would bring about four substantial changes that would significantly improve the quality of life and rights of workers.
- End restrictions and obstacles that limit migrant workers’ freedom of movement and prevent migrant workers from being able to terminate their employment in case of abuse.
- Authorize workers to leave their employment at certain intervals or after giving reasonable notice.
- Review the procedure for issuing exit visas.
- Enforce the ban on confiscation of passports.
However, the report claims that Qatar—despite repealing the central policies of the system—continues to turn a blind eye to “a de facto” kafala.
In other words, in Qatar, there continues to be discriminatory abuse by employers towards employees, because employers still control the legal and employment status of the migrant. If you are a migrant in Qatar and want to change jobs, chances are that you still have to pay a “no objection certificate” to your boss. These certificates usually cost much more than the worker’s own salary.
Other cases of abuses reported are related to labor exploitation, with long working hours in the inclement Qatari climate, and excessive (and often deliberate) delays in the payment of wages. Many migrants go months without being paid or were deceived with juicy salaries that ended up being miserable or much less than those offered.
Another issue that immigrant workers face is the lack of labor safety. There are reports linking the deaths of migrant workers to the terrible living and working conditions.
During the last decade, according to The Guardian, 6,500 migrant workers died on World Cup construction sites. FIFA downplayed the figure by saying that “the frequency of accidents on FIFA World Cup construction sites has been low when compared to other major construction projects around the world,” however, Amnesty International revealed that Qatar has not been interested in producing reliable death records and has not investigated deaths that may be linked to poor working conditions.
Freedom of expression, “a luxury” not available in Arab lands
Just a week ago, Qatari authorities arrested Norwegian journalists Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani, both of whom were in the Arab country to report on the sociopolitical situation, including the reality that migrant workers faced.
The journalists were arrested according to the official version for “trespassing on private property and filming without a permit.” The journalists’ version of the story is different, however. Ekeland told El American that he and his team were in the country “to cover the situation on the ground in Qatar in the year ahead of the World Cup.”
“That includes everything, from workers welfare and the situation for migrant workers, but also other topics like status of the stadiums being built, new reforms and legislation,” explained the Norwegian journalist, who spent more than 30 hours detained by Qatari officials.
While Qatar said it detained the Norwegian journalists after receiving a complaint from a private landlord about alleged illegal filming of their work camp, Ekeland said they received no prior warning.
“We went to an accommodation where we knew some workers lived. There, we asked the Camp Boss for permission to look around, maybe talk with some of the workers, maybe do some interviews, maybe film inside the accommodation,” Ekeland said. “He then called his boss, and I talked with the boss by telephone. They said we could do some interviews with some of the workers and then showed us around inside the building. From what we understand, it was the owner of this building who called the police. This was on Saturday 20th of November, and we were arrested the next day.”
The journalists had the material they recorded and collected during their stay in Qatar deleted. According to the authorities, this was done under the protection of Qatari law.
After being detained, the journalists were taken to prison.
“We didn’t get much food, we were placed in small prison cells for some hours and we did not get much rest. The questioning lasted for hours and we did not have a lawyer and wasn’t allowed to call anyone,” he told El American. “In some periods, we were given our own small rooms with two mattresses, but it was difficult to get some sleep because of the stress and because we were worried about how long we were supposed to stay there.”
Ekeland and Ghorbani’s release came on Sunday, November 21. By evening they were on their way back to Doha where they were greeted with fervor by the national media. Their arrest caused an international uproar, recalling cases of arrests of journalists that highlight the little or no freedom of expression that exists in Qatar.
About their work in the field, Ekeland said many workers were afraid to do interviews.
“You could see in their eyes that they were scared to be filmed. Some of them told me, when I spoke to them without a camera, that they worked for 12 hours every day, some of them didn’t have their passports, some of them didn’t get paid what they should have been paid,” the journalist added. “At the same time, the people who work on the stadiums have almost everything in place. The accommodations are better, the salary is better, the food is better. For the stadium workers I spoke to, things were OK, but a lot of the other workers had more difficulties with their stay in Qatar.”
Beyond his bad experience in Qatar, Ekeland hopes “Hopefully, this will not happen to any other journalists in Qatar from now on.” For him, “everyone, including the media, politicians, FIFA and the Qatari government,” must work much harder, together, to improve the problems of labor rights and freedoms in the Arab country. All this with less than a year to go before one of the most controversial World Cups in history starts.
“Some football associations have done a lot of work to better the situation in Qatar, but more needs to be done. My story is an example that there is still some work that should be resolved as soon as possible.”
Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.
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