The remarkable claim by trade unionists that more than 7,000 workers will die on construction sites in Qatar before the first game of the 2022 World Cup kicks off has backfired dramatically. The claim was made in the Global Construction Review last year. It said that 7,000 expat labourers will perish during the building of the football stadiums in Doha. This was based on a report – The Case Against Qatar — by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which alleged that 4,000 workers will lose their lives before a ball is kicked.
Now, though, human rights groups admit that no workers have actually died on the sites. Last month an Amnesty International report stated that there was “no evidence” that anyone has lost their life during the construction of the Khalifa Stadium, as was predicted by the ITUC. Even trade union leaders have partially backtracked on their allegations. “If I get it wrong by a few hundred middle-class Indians, does it negate the fact that workers are at risk?” asked ITUC General Secretary Sharon Burrows last week at a UN human rights conference in Doha. “Nobody can deny there is no commitment from the Qatari government to treat workers here as human beings with human rights,” she added hastily.
The new assessment of the working conditions in Qatar follows two other inquiries. In response to a complaint by the Building and Wood Workers International, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) investigated the allegations and delivered its verdict two months ago. At the same time, an independent study was commissioned by Indian trade unions and the University of Geneva which was overseen by the Swiss labour law specialist, Professor Christian Favre.
Remarkably, their conclusions were almost identical. They both examined the compliance of Qatar labour laws with international trade union conventions and concluded that Qatar has reformed its labour regulations and the conditions of migrant workers have improved since 2013. It was not an exoneration or a total clean bill of health. Both reports stated that Qatar needs to introduce more reforms and is far from blameless; they recommend that the gas-rich Gulf state should be placed under scrutiny by international organisations. However, they welcomed the move by Qatar to abolish the unpopular “kefala” system – used widely throughout the Gulf – which requires all unskilled labourers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. Despite objections from some international contractors, the system is likely to be banned soon.
Meanwhile, it is a mystery how the ITUC financed its massive and expensive campaign against Qatar and FIFA using slogans like “Re-Run the Vote”. Indian trade union leaders believe that the campaign against Qatar was hugely exaggerated and counter-productive, and are also sceptical about its funding. When asked whether the ITUC campaign was backed by European Union money, its leader Sharon Burrows strongly denied the claim
Qatar accepts that mistakes were made, and the progressive wing of the Doha government is promoting the reforms advocated by trade unions and NGOs. As a result, Qatar could be the only Gulf country to move from the “kefala” system to a modern enlightened way of treating migrant workers who represent more than 10 times the native Qatari population. Ironically, this could also inspire some European countries facing immigration problems from Syria.