by Richard Brook
The mention of ethics and football in the same breath often leads to the conclusion that the two words are mutually exclusive to an ever increasing degree. From the players shamelessly attempting to con referees to the embarrassment of their managers and clubs, to the stark, protectionist disparity that sees £630 million spent during the last transfer window, while Hinckley United cease to exist over debts of less than the weekly wage of some top professionals. As a threat to the integrity of professional football, all of the above pales into insignificance, when compared to the decision to award the sport’s centre piece – the World Cup – to Qatar, and the sport’s failure to acknowledge the desperate concerns that accompany it.
The debate over what month in 2022 the Qatar World Cup will be played and over the alleged corruption involved in appointing the host nation have been transformed into unwelcome, though pertinent, distractions from the more serious issues. The stories that have broken since FIFA’s vote on 2nd December 2010 of shocking human rights abuses must cast serious doubt on the state’s suitability as a host nation. Such abuses have reportedly occurred against workers who are readying the Middle Eastern country for the tournament, and indeed in one case against a French-Algerian footballer plying his trade in Qatar. Against such a backdrop, surely football’s international body’s endorsement of the country as the focus of the football world must be regarded as unconscionable.
The treatment of migrant construction workers, working in Qatar in preparation for the World Cup, is the subject of a recent report by Amnesty International. The report reinforces the situation as explained in the media, of workers being treated like cattle and living in overcrowded squalor. Amnesty found cases of unpaid wages, employers preventing migrant workers from leaving the country and workers who are close to suicide.
FIFA president, Sepp Blatter recently branded the situation for workers as “unacceptable”, following a meeting with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who in September estimated that 4,000 workers will die before the competition begins. A FIFA statement called for “fair working conditions” to be introduced “quickly and consistently”. Blatter called for the support of economic and political leaders to contribute to improving the situation, and stated his belief that “together we can achieve change”.
ITUC president Michael Sommer asserted: “Qatar must guarantee the International Labour Organisation’s core labour standards and thus eliminate discrimination and forced labour as well as allow freedom of association for its 1.3 million migrant workers.”
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, commented: “Employers in Qatar have displayed an appalling disregard for the basic human rights of migrant workers. Many are taking advantage of a permissive environment and lax enforcement of labour protections to exploit construction workers. The world’s spotlight will continue to shine on Qatar, in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, offering the government a unique chance to demonstrate that they are serious about their commitment to human rights.”
The situation, as described by those who have experienced it first hand, illustrates the gravity of the conditions workers are enduring. Reports suggest that workers are being forced into working patterns of 12 hour days, seven days a week and that wages go unpaid. Workers are crammed into accommodation, with some reports suggesting that up to 12 people are sharing a room. The problems with accommodation do not end there as workers report insufficient food, electricity being cut off and issues with the sewerage systems.
Even when the workers do escape these conditions – by virtue of their visa’s being cancelled – the promised, unpaid wages do not materialise. The legacy of having worked towards Qatar 2022 appears for many to be spiralling debts and despair.
To an extent the above scenario represents good fortune. At least those who have their visas revoked are enabled to return home to their friends and family. The sponsorship system, of migrant workers in Qatar, allows employers to prevent employees changing who they work for and even to prevent them from leaving Qatar at all. Amnesty state that their researchers witnessed 11 men signing documents that they knew to be falsely certifying that they had received their wages. They were signing these papers in order that they could get their passports back, to leave the country.
It is not just construction workers that seem to be suffering this kind of treatment. It seems that the world of football should also be uniting behind Zahir Belounis. Belounis, a French national, took the step of writing to Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola; both men were ambassadors for Qatar’s World Cup bid, to promote awareness of his own plight.
In the letter Belounis makes clear that he has not seen his family since June 2012 due to a legal dispute with his club, and the resultant refusal of an exit visa being granted to him. Belounis notes the hard work of many Qatari citizens to make the competition a success and talks of the fact that his daughters were born in the country. The player is unequivocal on his opposition to the exit visa system, describing it as a nightmare that is “slowly killing” him.
Belounis writes: “You know what it is like to have children. Imagine what I am going through every day, in a house that is half empty – because when they promised that they would give me my exit visa I sold my furniture – and when I see the look in my daughters’ eyes I feel ashamed, I feel disgusted with myself for inflicting such conditions on them.”
The Qatari Football Association (QFA) dispute Belounis’ version of events. They state that the player is being paid by the military, and that the military are his sponsor, as opposed to football club Al-Jeish. The QFA further state there has been no dispute lodged with them and they are only aware of the matter due to media coverage. It must be pointed out that Belounis is not the first sports person to claim such treatment in Qatar. British sailor, Tracy Edwards MBE tells a very similar tale that led to her bankruptcy.
Amnesty’s Salil Shetty stated that their findings indicated an “alarming level of exploitation” and that; “FIFA has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses”. FIFA executive committee member, Theo Zwanziger is to continue talks with ITUC and other human rights organisations. Zwanziger explained:
“The aim is to be in a position to report on concrete measures for Qatar, at the executive committee meeting in March 2014.”
With the reports of human rights issues in Qatar as they are, the image of at least the 2022 tournament would inevitably be vastly tarnished. The sight of millionaires playing in breathtaking new stadia will for some conjure images of the inhumane living conditions described above. Players and fans alike should be shocked and appalled into action in support of the construction workers and Belounis. Qatar should be pressured in to making changes. If change does not happen, then football authorities and corporate partners must be pressured into a meaningful response.
The headlines that FIFA’s independent ethics committee, who are investigating the corruption allegations regarding the vote, cannot strip Qatar of the World Cup are true. However FIFA’s executive committee could. This needs threat needs to be real. This has to be the moment that football stands up and for once says; ‘money isn’t everything’. There is no moral recovery for the sport, if it sanctions blind indifference to the suffering and loss of life that is currently inextricably accompanying preparations for the 2022 World Cup.
A Guardian investigation revealed that 44 Nepalese construction workers, in Qatar, died from heart attacks, heart failure, or work place accidents between 4th June and 8th August alone. This stark statistic shows that this tournament has more than enough blood on its hands already. Thinking as a fan, as opposed to as a writer, I would have real trouble supporting England at a competition that cost 4,000 lives. I would have real trouble supporting the idea of England even sending a team.