THE World Cup is, and should be seen as, a great event. Once every four years a host country has the world’s eyes cast upon it. It becomes an opportunity to showcase the country and a source of pride for its citizens.
Many hundreds of thousands of football supporters turn up in a country they probably haven’t thought much about before, and mix with the locals and experience its culture. Back at home, supporters plan work and social lives around TV schedules. Even those for whom football on the telly is usually a hindrance find themselves watching it, caught up in the moment and a (usually disappointing) home nation’s performance.
That’s the ideal anyway. In recent years, the World Cup and the news surrounding it has become political. Very political. A World Cup in South Africa was a highly political statement – a good one, but political nonetheless. In Brazil, we all saw the mass protests on the streets calling for the huge spending to actually go on the Brazilian people, not on shiny new stadiums and expensive airport terminals and highways.
The talk is always of the World Cup going to new countries and continents around the world. In a perfect world, that is good – football, a global sport, being used as a ‘force for positive change’.
But it’s not a perfect world, because when I mention FIFA, people think: ‘corruption’. World Cup: corruption. Russia 2018: corruption. Qatar 2022: corruption. I could go on. The force for good that football can be is not being used as it should. Qatar 2022 is a perfect example of this.
So far the debate around Qatar 2022 and the World Cup, for many supporters, has centred on what it means for our league matches now that it will take place in winter and, for those going, what it will be like to be there. All these are very valid concerns.
Yet as supporters, probably the biggest issue surrounding a World Cup in Qatar, hasn’t been talked about – just what is happening to the people who are expected to build Qatar, from the ground up, ready to be ready for the World Cup?
You see, whilst the almost sci-fi idea of air-conditioned outdoor stadia was being discussed, not enough people were discussing the workers who will build it, and who won’t have the power to flick on the air-con to save them from the heat. While the hotels and highways are being built, no one seems to ask about where the workers sleep or how they get to work.
The reality for those workers, often migrants from countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal, is difficult to imagine. It’s one of squalor and cramped living conditions: eight men crammed into rooms the size of a child’s bedroom, windows sealed shut and broken fans as the night-time temperatures hover at almost 30°C, fresh water so scarce they wash and cook with salt-water, 200 men sharing five toilets.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the work of the ITUC and British trade unions, including UCATT and Unite, much of this would still be unknown. They have cast light on the dreadful conditions faced and focused the attention of the media on the issue.
These migrant workers are promised fantastic opportunities. Recruited in their home country, they are offered good jobs, good pay, good housing and good conditions. All they have to do is pay £700 to a recruiting agent, sign on the dotted line and new prosperity is theirs; but much like the image Qatar tries to project with its fancy stadium drawings and plans for the future, the reality isn’t the same.
Workers find themselves being told upon arrival that there is a change of plan. The job is more menial than promised. The pay 45p per hour. Their living quarters are an hour out of the city. Transport to and from work is on a non air-conditioned bus. They live stacked in bunk-beds in corrugated iron sheds, cooking their food on unwashed hobs at 3:30am as they prepare for another shift. Not quite the image presented by the recruiters beforehand.
Yet the system in Qatar means workers become trapped. They are being paid less, while often needing to repay the money they borrowed – not from a high street bank, I should add – to get into the country. Worst of all, the ‘kafala’ (sponsorship) system in place for migrant workers in Qatar means that employers have power over their right to leave the country: workers can’t get an exit visa unless they give you permission and hundreds of employers confiscate their workers’ passports, just to make sure.
It’s little wonder many liken the worst excesses of the kafala system to slavery. And it doesn’t just happen to construction workers. You only need to Google the cases of Abdes Ouaddou and Zahir Belounis, two footballers who have been in the headlines due to their experiences. These men dared challenge their employers when they failed to pay the agreed wages and were trapped in Qatar to force them to back down.
Qatar does have some labour laws. Many were put in place to show the world that the country was ‘fit’ to host the World Cup. The problem is, Qatar doesn’t bother to enforce these laws. The only laws it upholds are those that keep workers under control. For example, confiscating passports is illegal, but 90% of low paid workers report having theirs taken away and not one employer has ever been prosecuted for doing it.
Qatar promised to abolish kafala, and milked that promise for every PR opportunity they could, but in the end the proposed “reforms” do nothing but formalise control of workers in the country’s statutes and were criticised by campaigners for being nothing more than a rebranding. Crucially, employers still have the right to stop their workers leaving for up to five years.
These issues alone are bad enough, with horrendous conditions that workers are expected to live and work in. For thousands, though, they will die. The ITUC estimated that as many as 4,000 workers would die before the World Cup. Qatar dispute these figures, but have refused to publish their own statistics and arrested some researchers including a BBC film crew. Fact Check have covered this here.
The ITUC, now based on Qatari figures they have seen, estimate that 1,000 workers die each year. Mostly fit, young men. This means that 7,000 workers will die before the World Cup. Those building the World Cup won’t get to see it.
Numbers can sometimes become lost, so here’s a sobering thought. Imagine 304 teams went to the World Cup, each taking a 23-man squad. Then imagine they all died there. There would be anger, upset, condemnation and action. Yet the same number of dead workers may go unnoticed.
They won’t, though, if a campaign lead by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has anything to do with it. The Playfair Qatar campaign has a simple message: they want FIFA to take action and tell Qatar to play by the rules. Football can and should bring a change for good. FIFA often finds it can make governments change laws if they want to host the tournament, usually around taxation or to assist multi-million pound sponsorship deals.
The TUC want FIFA to make Qatar change if they want to keep the World Cup. They are asking for the abolition of kafala, so that workers have the freedom to leave Qatar if they want, proper enforcement of existing labour laws and easier ways for workers to complain, decent living conditions, and modern health and safety standards to massively reduce the death rate.
Finally, they want the one thing that would make all these things far easier to achieve – they want workers to be allowed to work together in their own defence, and to speak out against deadly conditions and exploitation under the protection of free trade unions.
In a promising and positive step, the TUC want to engage and work with the lifeblood of football on this campaign: us supporters. They’ve done this already, working with supporter trusts and groups across the country on days of action. The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) has endorsed the campaign and promoted it at events.
This coming weekend, supporters across the country are being asked to support a weekend of action. On Monday, Spirit Of Shankly will co-ordinate action ahead of our match versus Manchester United.
This isn’t about mass mobilisation and stripping Qatar of the World Cup. It is about showing that ordinary football supporters believe that migrant workers lives are important. That a football tournament isn’t more important than people. And all you have to do is take a photo showing your support.
It’s really simple to do. The TUC have produced messages of support which can be downloaded and printed for you to hold up, get your picture taken (ideally wearing club colours, a scarf or T-shirt), at the ground or at a local landmark and tweet it to @playfairqatar.
Alternatively, if you are at the match on Monday, come and meet us outside the Hillsborough Justice Campaign shop from 7pm and we can take the photo for you.
It’s hoped that bringing together supporters from across the country can send a message to Qatar, that we want action and force FIFA to listen as they see how supporters won’t just accept the goings on in Qatar.
It was Bill Shankly who said that “football isn’t a matter of life or death – it’s much more important than that”. Well we know that not to be the case, we just need to make sure FIFA do too.