Qatar’s Biggest Cheerleader Is Finally Challenging It on Workers’ Rights

‘Absolute power insanity’.

by Polly Smythe

26 April 2023

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

The spotlight on the low-wage migrant workforce who made Qatar’s 2022 football World Cup possible largely ended along with the tournament. But there’s one surprising organisation posing questions about the legacy of Qatar’s labour reforms.

In March, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a global umbrella body for trade unions, issued a statement expressing “deep concern” that there will be “no positive and lasting legacy of the FIFA World Cup” when it comes to labour rights.

This condemnation, coming four months after the final whistle has blown, is a position far removed from the ITUC’s strident defence of Qatar in the build up and during the competition.

The ITUC, which calls itself “the global voice of working people,” was once a vociferous critic of Qatar, calling in 2013 for the country to be stripped of hosting the World Cup over its treatment of migrant workers. Two years later, the confederation called the country a “slave state.”

But in 2017, the confederation abandoned this stance and became a vocal cheerleader for Qatar’s labour reforms, despite other trade union and civil society organisations remaining critical of the Gulf state.

In June 2022, Qatar’s Ministry of Labour released a video of Burrow saying “The people who attack Qatar for its labour laws from outside the country, we say, go and have a look.” In October 2022, the ITUC’s former general secretary Sharan Burrow called the death of 6,000 workers on Qatari construction sites over the past decade a “myth,” and said, “workers can achieve justice in Qatar.”

It was a stance that earned the ITUC some critical attention in the build up to the World Cup as it became embroiled in a massive corruption crisis involving allegations of bribery which engulfed the European Socialists and Democrats party in the European Parliament.

Having held the role for 12 years, Burrow stepped down as the confederation’s general secretary on 11 November 2022, with Luca Visentini elected as her replacement.

Less than a month later, on 9 December, Visentini was detained by Belgian authorities as part of an investigation into an alleged bribery scandal between Qatar and senior EU officials.

Six days later, he told Politico “I’m innocent […] I’m against any form of corruption, I’m not corrupt myself, and I have the reputation and the interest of the ITUC as my highest concern.”

On 19 December, it was reported that Visentini had received envelopes – on which Santa Claus was depicted – filled with cash. The envelope came from the chief suspect in the scandal, an Italian socialist ex-MEP and founder of the NGO Fight Impunity, Pier Antonio Panzeri. Handing over the money, Panzeri was reportedly recorded by hidden police microphones as saying: “We seem like those guys from Ocean’s Eleven.” In mid January, Panzeri signed a so-called “repentance agreement” in which he accepted a limited prison sentence and agreed to share details of who he bribed.

Following this revelation, Visentini admitted to having received €50,000 in cash for his ITUC leadership campaign.

“I accepted this donation in cash because of the quality of the donor and its non-profit character,” he said. “I was not asked, neither did I ask anything in exchange for the money and no conditions whatsoever were set for this donation.

“This donation was not connected to any attempt of corruption, nor to influence my trade union position on Qatar or on any other issues. I openly reject any possible allegations in this respect as being totally untrue.”

On 21 December, his leadership of the ITUC was suspended.

On 9 March, a special commission ordered by the ITUC to “investigate the circumstances surrounding the allegations” against Visentini, found “no evidence of donations from either Qatar or Morocco influencing the ITUC’s policies or programmes.”

Nevertheless, at a meeting on 11 March, the ITUC general council voted 57 to 12 to dismiss Visentini. Having concluded that Visentini no longer had the confidence of the organisation, a working group was established to examine possible amendments to the ITUC Constitution, “on the financing of campaigns for ITUC leadership elections, and on financial compliance.”

ITUC President Akiko Gono said in a statement: “Important lessons have been learned and the General Council reiterated the ITUC’s absolute opposition to corruption in any form.”

“Absolute power insanity.”

However, there remains disbelief among members of the international labour movement  that this will address the confederation’s deep internal crisis, which is now spilling over into the public.

In March Victor Baez, former deputy general secretary of the ITUC from 2018 until last year, and former general secretary of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas, issued a stinging public rebuke to former ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow.

Baez wrote that Burrow had “amassed a tremendous amount of power to herself.” Rather than think of “corruption solely as the act of a selfish individual,” he pointed instead towards the “conditions that allow it to thrive… concentration of power in one person, weak processes of checks and balances, bendy rules, insufficient transparency and, more importantly, the lack of real democracy in decision making.”

“Sadly, the unrestricted power made her slowly drift towards the glamorous VIP meeting rooms of the super-rich.

“The most visible consequence of this absolute power insanity came back to haunt us all. It is of course Burrow’s decision to radically change her opinion over labour rights in Qatar.”

In the wake of the initial revelations, additional figures involved with the ITUC have been implicated. Panzeri reportedly told Belgian prosecutors in February that the 2018 campaign for presidency of the ITUC by Susan Camusso, then general secretary of General Confederation of Italian Labour, was funded directly by Qatar. Camusso has denied the allegations.

The special commission also “found serious deficiencies in the decision by deputy general secretary (DGS) Owen Tudor to accept this cash contribution to the ITUC.” Tudor, who was appointed interim ITUC general secretary on 21 December following the initial suspension of Visentini, previously held the position of head of the British TUC’s international relations department. In 2011 was outed by Wikileaks as “one of the favourite narks” of the US Embassy in London, telling the Americans what the UK trade union movement was up to.

Four months after the final whistle blew on the “best World Cup ever”, the ITUC appears to have undergone yet another remarkable change of heart, finally criticising the application of Qatar’s much heralded labour reforms. It may be too late for workers who continue to pay extortionate and illegal recruitment fees, face extreme difficulty in changing jobs, receive a basic minimum wage of £1 an hour, and struggle with excessive overtime, chronic underpayment, and wage theft.

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.


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