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One of Britain’s greatest exports, the game of football, has over the past few weeks been thrown into turmoil. Fifa, the official body that organises international football competitions, has, thanks to brave investigative journalism, been exposed as home to a wretched tale of alleged corruption and bribery. While Sepp Blatter may indeed have stepped down, his legacy persists in the awarding of the World Cup to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
Research by the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that around 1,200 construction workers, most of whom are migrants from South Asia, have already died building Qatar’s stadiums and other infrastructure in the country. If conditions do not improve, and the loss of life continues, the death toll might reach 4,000 by 2022.
Sixty lives lost on average for each game played. If we had a minute’s silence for each of those 60 workers at the start of each game, billions of viewers worldwide would spend an hour thinking about those workers, their families, their friends and the appalling indifference shown to their lives in the name of entertainment.
This is all made worse by the fact that Qatar is the world’s richest country. Its GDP per capita (including migrant workers) of $143,000 (source: World Bank), is more than 50% higher than that of the next country on the list, Luxembourg. Yet 80% of its population – and 94% of its workforce – are migrant workers paid a pittance.
Qatar operates a system for migrant workers called kafala, which ties them to exploitative employers. They cannot leave the country without permission. Their wages are routinely withheld. They are denied the right to form trade unions. They work in gruelling conditions and at night sleep in squalid, cramped rooms, often without even a mattress.
This abuse of migrant workers is not restricted to the World Cup – there is a huge amount of construction going on in Qatar – but the hosting of football’s biggest tournament has focussed the world’s eyes on the appalling practices and atrocious conditions in the country. Last May, Qatar promised reforms but, one year on, Amnesty International reports that none have actually been implemented. Workers are still suffering, and lives are still at risk.
BBC journalists seeking to report on conditions were recently arrested and detained. Despite this, Britain’s Sports Minister said in March that the Government was “encouraged by the steps taken by the Qatari Government in response to concerns”.
What steps have they taken? Well, the Qatar government recently denied that any workers have died building the stadiums, while at the same time claiming that deaths amongst workers might have happened anyway, backed up an epidemiological study of mortality rates calculated on the back of an envelope.
And then the Qatari foreign minister said “I believe it is because of prejudice and racism that we have this bashing campaign against Qatar.” But it is not prejudiced to say the World Cup stadiums and other facilities are being built at a horrendous human cost; and it is not racist to say a migrant worker’s life should be equal to any other.
No-one is “bashing” Qatar, but the international community has a responsibility to challenge its human rights record. Qatar must allow international safety experts to assess the death toll so far and ensure that not one more person dies needlessly. If London 2012 could host an entire Olympics with no work-related fatalities, then Qatar can do the same for the World Cup. It’s all down to will and political leadership.
This is the kind of injustice that the trade union movement was set up to fight against and which the Labour Party has legislated to prevent here in Britain. I am proud that we live in a country in which any loss of life at work is a matter of deep concern and where workers have strong workplace rights. And it is a reminder of the world that might exist without people with the courage to stand up and fight for human rights and the duty of care on employers.
In the wake of the Fifa arrests, David Cameron was quick to back calls for Sepp Blatter to resign. Yet the UK Government has been less willing to speak out forcefully on behalf of Qatar’s migrant workers. Why? Who knows, but it is undermining its own authority to do so.
This is a government that won’t rule out withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights because they think it’s all about a few people we want to deport. It isn’t. Think again for a second if such treatment of workers would be permissible under the ECHR. It wouldn’t and that’s why the Convention and the Human Rights Act protects all of us.
We have great power as a nation. We have moral authority that reaches back to our exports not just of goods but ideas that have shaped the modern world – democracy, the rule of law, human rights and, yes, sport and the British sense of fair play.
We should always seek to use this soft power to reinforce these values around the world, and it is about time David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond did so in this case.