How a Trade Union Leader Became Qatar’s Biggest Fan

Why is the International Trade Union Congress sticking up for Qatar?

by Polly Smythe

24 November 2022

Workers on a construction site. Design: Pietro Garrone (Novara Media). Photograph: the apostrophe (Flickr)
Labour rights abuses have blighted the Qatar world cup. Pietro Garrone/Novara Media

In 2013 the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) – which calls itself “the global voice of working people” – demanded that Qatar be stripped of hosting the World Cup over its treatment of the migrant workers tasked with constructing the country’s seven new stadiums, new airport, new hotels, and new roads. In 2014, the ITUC released a report declaring “Qatar is a country without a conscience,” and in 2015 labelled the country a “slave state”.

But in June 2022, months before the controversial tournament began, the ITUC – a respected global umbrella body for trade unions which traces its history back to the First International – was singing a different tune.

Qatar’s Ministry of Labour released a video of Sharon Burrow, longstanding General Secretary of the ITUC, in which she gave the tiny Gulf state’s labour law reforms a glowing review.

“The people who attack Qatar for its labour laws from outside the country, we say, go and have a look,” she said. “Workers can achieve justice in Qatar.”

“My advice to fans is go to the World Cup, have fun,” she said. Months later, before the first ball was kicked, workers whose labour had been crucial to the $220 billion World Cup project were evicted from their apartment blocks to make way for visiting fans.

The chasm between the picture of vastly improved working conditions endorsed by ITUC, and the experiences of migrant workers labouring – and all too often, dying – in the fierce heat of the Persian Gulf, is a curious feature of this year’s World Cup.

As the ITUC enthusiastically praises Qatar’s legislative reforms, the work of painstakingly documenting how the implementation of these reforms has fallen drastically short has been left to workers, journalists, human rights organisations like Amnesty, Migrants Rights, Equidem, and other trade union organisations, like the British TUC.

It’s a dynamic made all the stranger given the ITUC’s initial role as Qatar’s most vocal critic.

When asked about the controversy surrounding Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen said, “We’re footballers, and we play football. Change has to come from somewhere else.” But off the pitch, there are questions about why the ITUC – a body charged with improving conditions for working people – has become one of Qatar’s most strident defenders.

When Fifa awarded Qatar the World Cup in 2010, amid allegations of bribery and corruption, it made no demands of labour rights commitments from the autocratic state. The ITUC sought to win concessions from the Qatari authorities through other means. In June 2014, a complaint was filed by delegates of the United Nations agency the International Labour Organisation (ILO) against Qatar, over concerns around forced labour. In 2016, the ILO gave Qatar a year to reform its labour laws, saying failure to do so would result in an official Commission of Inquiry, the agency’s highest-level investigative procedure.

Alarmed by the threat of a commission, initiated in part through sustained pressure from the ITUC, Qatar entered into an agreement. In return for withdrawal of the commission, the country would cooperate with the ILO. The ILO closed their complaint against Qatar in 2017, and the country agreed to a three-year technical cooperation agreement to reform their labour laws.

Once the commission was withdrawn in 2017, Qatar swiftly committed in principle to ending kafala – an employer-sponsorship system which gives employers enormous power over exploited migrant workers – providing a minimum wage, and establishing workers’ committees.

In response to this commitment, the ITUC shifted its messaging, despite Qatar’s announcement coming before any meaningful change had been delivered. The ITUC praised Qatar as ushering in a “new era for workers’ rights in the country”, “normalis[ing] industrial relations in the country”. The ITUC even called upon Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – who were imposing an economic and diplomatic blockade on Qatar at the time – to “follow its lead.”

Reforms did arrive – a minimum wage of around £1 an hour and the removal of key elements of the kafala system – but only in 2020, a full ten years after the country had won hosting rights. Questions over their implementation remained. When a Guardian journalist put the idea of kafala’s demise to a migrant worker in Qatar this September, he laughed. “If we could change jobs, everyone would leave!” the worker said.

Crucially, these reforms came only after the completion of many of the vast construction projects needed for the World Cup. A broad coalition of human rights organisations and trade unions wrote to Fifa President, Gianni Infantino, in May 2022, demanding the creation of a remedy fund. The fund would help workers still seeking wages stolen from them, as well as the families of workers who died.

The fund was not only rejected by Qatar’s Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, but the press was briefed that “international trade union leaders” warned that a new fund would be too complicated to set up and manage, although who exactly these international trade union leaders were remained unclear.

By October, Burrow was actively defending Qatar against its critics. She said that claims that more than 6,000 workers had died on construction sites over the past decade were “a myth”. There are disputes over the exact death toll – human rights organisations put the number in the thousands, as Qatari organisers claim the figure is 37, which drops to three if only workplace accidents are included – but this confusion stems from Qatar’s refusal to investigate the deaths so that the cause of death can be determined. In the same month that Burrow called the deaths a myth, Amnesty wrote that the Qatari government had done “little to investigate, certify and remedy migrant workers’ deaths.”

It is likely that hundreds of the deaths are linked to migrants working in the extreme heat. Despite this, Burrow has said Qatar’s law regulating working in extreme heat is one of the best in the world. In their October report, Amnesty said that in Qatar “human rights abuses persist on a significant scale today.” Equidem, a human and labour rights charity, have written that the “hostile environment for migrants, on top of a steep power imbalance between workers and employers, heavily undermines Qatar and Fifa’s rights protection initiatives.” Two days before World Cup kick-off, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), a trade union which had been working in partnership with the Qatari government since 2016, said they see “no sign that sustainable change is forthcoming,” with calls for reforms being met by “deafening silence” from government officials.

Why the ITUC would give Qatar such a ringing endorsement is unclear. What we do know is that the organisation and the Gulf state have had disagreements in the past.

In 2014, the ITUC accused Qatar Airways of discrimination, in response to an employment contract clause that allowed cabin crew to be sacked if they became pregnant or married within the first five years of their employment. The ILO – which the ITUC encourages states to work with – condemned the clause. In response, Akbar Al-Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways, the national airline of the State of Qatar, said “I don’t give a damn about the ILO – I am there to run a successful airline,” shortly before the clause was phased out.

Yet it seems Burrow became embroiled in a deeper form of dispute with Al-Baker. In a clip posted on Twitter in 2018, Burrow said: “Their boss is still suing me, Mr Al-Baker, but we will sort that out.” Novara Media asked the ITUC for more information on this apparent legal case, but got no response.

Additionally, a Swiss investigative team found that Qatar had run a wide-reaching and long-standing intelligence operation against Fifa officials. The Qatari state paid an American private firm, Global Risk Advisors, millions to spy on critics. At the end of 2015, the ITUC came under a cyberattack, whereby the email account of the then media spokeswoman for the general secretary was copied, with altered emails from the union appearing in the media. The attack “bore the fingerprints of Global Risk Advisors”, the Swiss investigative team said. Hackers also created a network detailing the relationships of ITUC employees and the ways they were connected to Fifa.

At the start of November, human rights organisation FairSquare published an open letter expressing concern that the ITUC “have either exaggerated the effectiveness of legal reforms in Qatar or downplayed the seriousness or prevalence of ongoing human rights abuses.” The ITUC’s cheerleading has otherwise gone publicly unchallenged.

Burrow, who has been general secretary of the ITUC since 2010, stepped down from her role at the ITUC’s congress this week.

Novara Media wrote to the ITUC asking why it had become such a strong cheerleader for Qatar’s labour reforms when other trade union and civil society organisations remained critical, but got no response.

This piece is part of Pro Revolution Soccer, a Novara Media series on football, the Qatar World Cup, and how we can change the game.

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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