The ITUC, which has 175 members in 153 countries, has called for a boycott of
the 2022 World Cup if Qatar fails to adopt international labour standards for
its huge army of some 1.2 million foreign workers who it says toil in
circumstances of virtual serfdom.
The group, which has already launched a low-key, online boycott
campaign, exploited its rare presence in Qatar for a climate change
conference to press its demands, which so far had largely fallen on
deaf ears. Foreign workers are building billions of dollars of
infrastructure in preparation for the World Cup.
"After a full and frank discussion, Qatar's labour minister assured
me that if workers want to establish a union he will make sure that
those who decide to join a union will not be punished. We will test
him on that," ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said in a
Ms. Burrow said
she had also met also met
with the Qatari Minister for Social Affairs, the Qatar 2022 Supreme
Committee and the Qatar National Human Rights Committee.
The litmus test
for the ITUC is likely to be whether Qatar ratifies and implements
International Labour Organization (ILO) standards, which include
freedom association and would mean that the promised union would be
able to engage in collective bargaining.
Qatari efforts to
fend off an international boycott have so far fallen short of the
confederation’s demands. In the latest effort to mollify the unions,
Qatar last weekend allowed a rare demonstration in favour of foreign
labour rights. Union
members wore masks of two Nepali workers during the rally to
highlight the abuses of guest workers in the Gulf state.
The ITUC has
repeatedly employed Nepali workers, among whom the suicide rate is
high, as its case study. “More people will die building the World
Cup infrastructure than players will play on the field,” Ms. Burrow
democratic freedoms is a concern not only for unskilled workers but
also professionals and businessmen. New York Times columnist Tomas
Friedman recently quoted a Turkish expert describing the requirement
for a Qatari sponsor to work in the country.
“If you have a
work permit and you want to leave the country, you need your sponsor
to give you written permission. If your sponsor dies, his son
inherits that right,” Mr. Friedman quoted the expert, whose
sponsor’s son is very young, as saying. “If he says I cannot leave,
I cannot leave. I do business but I have no rights at all. ... We
joke that we are ‘modern slaves’ there. And this country is trying
to bring democracy to Syria?” the expert said referring to Qatar’s
support for rebels fighting the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
followed moves by Qatar to ensure that companies enforce safety and
security standards, pay workers on time and ensure that companies
properly house foreign workers. Construction industry sources said
Qatar had reduced the number of workers allowed to live in one room
from eight to four and that it was building a compound for the
labourers with modern residential units as well as shops and
The ITUC has
rejected these moves, asserting they fail to meet international
labour standards and should be part of collective bargaining.
rally and the promise to permit the creation of unions contrasts
starkly with a crackdown in Qatar and other Gulf states on critics
and stricter control of the media and the Internet. A Qatari poet,
Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was last month sentenced to life in
prison in what, legal and human rights activists said, was a
“grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free
expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling
crime appears to be a poem he wrote last year entitled Tunisian
Jasmine celebrating the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine el
Abedine Ben Ali as well his earlier recitation of poems that
included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar's ruling
positioned itself as a frontline supporter of anti-autocratic
popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa and its
state-owned Al Jazeera television network as a path breaker for
freedom of the media in the region. Mr. Al-Ajami’s sentencing in a
two-line written judgment was not reported by Al Jazeera.
"Qatar, after all
it’s posturing as a supporter of freedom, turns out to be determined
to keep its citizens quiet. Ibn
al-Dheeb's alleged mockery of Qatar's rulers can hardly compare to
the mockery this judgment makes of the country's posture as a
regional centre for media freedom," said Human
Right Watch’s Joe Stork.
A draft media law
approved by the Qatari Cabinet would prohibit publishing or
broadcasting information that would "throw relations between the
state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion" or "abuse the
regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the
national or higher interests of the state." Violators would face
stiff financial penalties of up to 1 million Qatari Riyals
M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies and the author of The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.