By James M. Dorsey
The International Labour Organization, by giving Qatar 12 months to implement labour reform, has put the Gulf state on notice that it no longer can delay acting on promises made in the wake of its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The ILO warning rings stark as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar’s main competitor, steps up efforts to become the region’s prime sports hub, on the back of implementation of the very labour reforms Qatar has yet to produce.
The ILO threat to establish a Commission of Inquiry if Qatar fails to act in the coming year comes amid mounting pressure on the Gulf state. Such commissions are among the ILO’s most powerful tools to ensure compliance with international treaties. The UN body has only established 13 such commissions in its century-long history. The last such commission was created in 2010 to force Zimbabwe to live up to its obligations.
Piling on the pressure on Qatar, Amnesty International has said it would issue a report on March 31 that exposes exploitation of migrant workers on World Cup construction sites despite the adoption of significantly working and living standards by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari body responsible for preparing the tournament.
“The report will show how, despite limited reform efforts in the past two years touted by the Qatari authorities and FIFA, the country’s Kafala system under which migrant workers must be sponsored by an employer leads to forced labour and other abuses,” Amnesty said, referring to the labour sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers.
The Washington-based Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE), in another assault on Qatar’s reputation, has called for a boycott of the Gulf state’s flagship airline, Qatar Airways, because of alleged violations of human rights by the company and, its owner, the government. The boycott call came as Qatar Airways expanded its reach in the United States with the inauguration of a flight from Doha to Boston.
The mounting pressure threatens to erase considerable goodwill that Qatar built in the wake of its 2010 successful World Cup bid by breaking with the mould of Gulf states’ refusal to engage with their critics, and holding out the promise of a more constructive relationship with international human rights groups and trade unions, and significant labour reform. Qatar became the only Gulf state to work with its critics rather than imprison them or bar them entry to the country as most of the region’s other countries continue to do.
In cooperation with human rights groups, organizations like the Supreme Committee and Qatar Foundation drafted significantly improved standards for the living and worker conditions of migrant workers who constitute the majority of the Gulf states population. The organizations said those standards were being implemented in all of their contracts. They stopped short however of endorsing more political demands such as acknowledging the right of workers to create independent unions and bargain collectively.
Human rights groups and trade unions have nonetheless grown increasingly frustrated with the government’s failure in the last five years to incorporate the standards in national legislation. Qatar’s failure looms large with the United Arab Emirates’ announcement of labour reforms described by Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas McGeehan as "a huge improvement and something we would fully support and applaud."
Labour reform poses as much an existential issue in the UAE as it does in Qatar, both states in which the citizenry accounts for at most a mere 15 percent of the population. As a result, many Gulf citizens see granting non-nationals any rights as opening a Pandora’s Box that could end up with them losing control of their culture, society and state. The UAE’s ability to move on improved working conditions adds to the pressure piling up on Qatar.
Adding to pressure, is the competition between Qatar and the UAE, Gulf states that differ on a broad range of geopolitical issues. The UAE has emerged as the world’s foremost shirt sponsor of European soccer leagues at a time that sponsorship and advertising is expected to dip as a result of reduced energy prices and austerity measures in the Gulf.
Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways has positioned itself as one of the UAE’s top brands through its sponsorship of high-profile sporting events and teams. A recent poll conducted by research firm YouGov found that Etihad was the second most identifiable brand in the UAE.
“Football is still the cheapest advertising there is if you want visibility… We spent US$15m on the advertising for our Jennifer Aniston campaign and it was like a pea in the ocean. With Real Madrid we have 700 million people who love their club and the players. With Arsenal we have 500 million. We had no renewals last season and none this coming season, so we invested at a good time, I think,” said Boutros Boutros, senior vice president for corporate communications and marketing at Etihad’s major competitor, Dubai-based Emirates.
Movement on the labour issue gives the UAE a leg up in its sports rivalry with Qatar given that it blunts criticism of the emirates at a time that they were joining Qatar as a focus of human rights groups and trade unions. It magnifies the threat to Qatar by the ILO at a time that the integrity of Qatar’s World Cup bid is under investigation by Swiss authorities and could become part of a wide ranging US Department of Justice investigation into corruption in world soccer body FIFA that has already led to tens of indictments.
“Qatar has the financial means to make the real reforms, ensure safe work and decent wages, and the international community is ready to help when the government finally shows that it is serious. That day has yet to come, but the new ruling from the ILO should hasten Qatar’s realisation that the world will only be convinced by real change, not by public relations exercises,” said International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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.