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Qatar Unwittingly Forces Potential Improvement Of Soccer Governance

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FIFA executive Theo Zwanziger testifies in the European parliament
FIFA executive Theo Zwanziger testifies in the European parliament

This is hardly how Qatar would have wanted to do it, but the Gulf state has unwittingly contributed to a potential improvement in the governance of soccer and word sports as a result of mounting controversy over its labour standards. .

The controversy in which Qatar has sought to evade political demands for granting workers full political rights, including the right to organize freely and bargain collectively, by adopting significantly improved standards for their living and working conditions is forcing international sports associations to make human and other rights part of their criteria for awarding in future a country the right to host a mega sporting event.

“We need to rethink this and give human rights a much higher status,” Theo Zwanziger, speaking on behalf of world soccer body FIFA, told a European parliament hearing on Qatar this week.

Mr. Zwanziger’s statement follows last year’s rejection by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) of Qatar’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, in part, according to labour activists, because of workers’ conditions in the Gulf state.

Mr. Zwanziger admitted in his testimony that the plight of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the population of the tiny energy-rich state, had not been a consideration in the awarding three years ago of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

That has now backfired and put both Qatar and FIFA on the defensive. Neither Qatar nor FIFA recognized at the time that the awarding would not only enhance the Gulf state’s prestige but give leverage to activists like the international trade unions which they had lacked prior to Qatar’s successful bid.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has campaigned for the last three years against the kafala or sponsorship system, prevalent not only in Qatar but also other Gulf states, that effectively restricts workers’ freedoms, including travel and the ability to seek alternative employment, and makes them dependent on their employers.

To Qatar’s credit, it has sought to structurally address concerns about material living and working conditions and actively engaged with the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, and human rights groups like Amnesty International.

The Qatari committee responsible for delivering World Cup-related infrastructure this week issued in advance of the European parliament hearing its most detailed workers welfare standards to date yet, a 50-page document to be included in all tournament-related contracts.

Although denounced by the ITUC as too little, too imprecise and failing to address the fundamental sponsorship issue, the standards, if properly implemented and policed, do in significant ways improve workers’ living and working conditions.

In contrast to the ILO and Amnesty, which endorsed the standards as a step forward while insisting that Qatar still has to address the far more invasive and painful issue of sponsorship, Qatar’s relationship with the ITUC has remained acrimonious.

Qatari officials say the trade unions have been far less sensitive to the fact that Qatari reluctance to address those issues are not simply the recalcitrance of an autocracy, albeit an enlightened one. Unlike in other countries where the citizenry accounts for a majority of the population, granting rights of any kind to foreigners raises the spectre of the minority Qatari population losing control of its country, society and culture.

This is not to say that foreigners, and in this case workers, should not have those rights. What it does say however is that change is a far more existential, intrusive and gut-wrenching process   Failure to recognize that risks hardening dividing lines rather than creating an environment in which interests of all parties are taken into account, fears are addressed and the pain involved in fundamental change is eased. By the same token, the ITUC’s hard line ensures that the larger issues that go beyond the immediate living and working conditions of foreign workers remain on the table.

The stakes for all parties are high and perhaps highest for the Qatar. Privately, many Qataris recognize that evading the demographic issue is unsustainable even if they don’t know what the solution is.

To be fair, Qatar’s grappling with some aspects of fundamental issues while seeking to evade others has already produced change. In a region governed by autocrats that more often than not refuse to seriously engage with their critics, Qatar has set a precedent with its engagement with international organizations like Amnesty.

Human rights, trade union and media focus on the plight of foreign workers has put fundamental rights firmly on the agenda of international sports associations at the cost of considerable reputational damage to Qatar that threatens its goal of employing sports to acquire soft power. It has made FIFA as much a party pressuring the Qataris for change as are the trade unions or human rights groups.

Depending on proper implementation and policing, significant aspects of foreign workers’ living and working conditions will be addressed. Qatar is also already looking at ways of tackling other equally onerous stages of a worker’s migration cycle, first and foremost the frequently corrupt recruitment process that puts labourers into high debt even before they set foot in the Gulf state.

All of this widens cracks in the door. The trick now is to carry that process forward. To do so, an international division of labour with good and bad cops may well serve its purpose. There is no guaranteed outcome. But the choices that Qatar and ultimately other Gulf states face have never before been posed in starker terms.

Awarding the World Cup to Qatar was “a risk and a chance… (that could) help improve the human rights situation,” Mr. Zwanziger told the European parliament.

Published in permission with James M. Dorsey 

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.