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Qatar Labour Controversy Becomes Part of Gulf Dispute Over Muslim Brotherhood

03/15/2014 02:06 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2014

Saudi-led efforts to isolate Qatar because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood have expanded to exploit criticism of labour conditions in the Gulf state in advance of the 2022 World Cup.

Arab trade unions and non-governmental organizations have added their voices to criticism of Qatar by international trade unions, human rights groups and world soccer body FIFA. The Arab criticism appeared however to be motivated more by mounting pressure on Qatar from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt than concern for workers' welfare.

In an interview with Al Monitor, Abdul Wahab Khudr, an adviser to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation and editor of the Arab Workers News Agency, said that the International Federation of Arab Trade Unions was considering deposing Qatar as its president in advance of next month's Arab Labour Conference in Cairo. Mr. Khudr said that the move was being discussed because Qatar had refused to allow the creation of trade unions and did not adhere to international labour standards and conventions.

Mr. Khudr admitted however that the trade union moves were motivated primarily by a Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar because of its continued backing of and hosting of prominent Muslim Brothers and other Islamists in exile. Saudia Arabia followed Egypt earlier this month in banning the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

The kingdom alongside the UAE and Bahrain withdrew its ambassador from Doha earlier this month in a bid to force Qatar to change its policies. Egypt, whose armed forces last year toppled the government of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, and the country's first democratically elected president, followed suit.

Mr. Khudr was careful not to mention in his criticism of Qatar the Gulf state's kafala or sponsorship system that puts foreign workers at the mercy of their employers because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have similar sponsorship systems and also do not allow the formation of independent trade unions.

"Qatar has a bad record with the Egyptians because of its role in the January 2011 and June 2013 revolutions. Qatar played a clear inciting role and sought to create confusion and support terrorist groups in Egypt," Mr. Khudr said referring to the popular revolt three years ago against President Hosni Mubarak and last year's coup against Mr. Morsi.

The Arab trade union move came as international trade unions charged in advance of a crucial FIFA executive meeting that despite Qatari pledges workers on the Gulf state's first World Cup stadium were being housed in "squalid accommodation" and that Qatar had failed to adhere to workers' standards that it had adopted. The Qatari committee responsible for World Cup infrastructure asserted that the unions had gotten their facts wrong.

The union charges included in a report released this weekend by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) based on a recent inspection trip to Qatar came as FIFA executive Theo Zwanziger was drafting recommendations for how the world soccer body should handle the controversy over labour conditions and rights in Qatar. FIFA's executive committee is scheduled to discuss the recommendations at a meeting on March 20.

The ITUC has been campaigning for abolishment of Qatar's kafala system, which it describes as modern slavery, as well as improved working and living conditions for foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the Qatari population, ever since the Gulf state won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup in late 2010.

The confederation's report, The Case against Qatar, asserted that 38 Asian workers employed on the site of the Al Wakrah Stadium designed by world famous Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid were accommodated in sub-standard housing.

"With more than ten men to a room, dangerous and unsanitary cooking facilities outside their door and no personal space, this is unacceptable. Al Wakrah site inspectors reported to the media they had signed off a 'successful inspection' - an indication of blatant disregard for human beings," ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow who led the group's inspection team charged. She said the workers slept on mattresses on the floor in makeshift rooms underneath the stadium's bleachers.

Ms. Burrow's charges backed up by photographs in the report appeared to contradict assertions by the Qatar Supreme Committee for Legacy and Delivery that workers on World Cup-related projects are accommodated according to international standards.

In response, the committee said in a statement that it was "disappointing to read an entire section in the International Trade Union Confederation's report dedicated to the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy littered with factual errors and attempts to discredit the positive work we are undertaking."

It said "the most fundamental error" was "the fact that the employee accommodation referenced...is not where the construction workers who are building the new Al Wakrah Stadium, a proposed Host Venue for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, live. The International Trade Union Confederation's report described accommodations underneath the bleachers of Al Wakrah Sports Club's current stadium," a 30-year old facility slated to be abandoned once the new stadium is completed.

Qatari officials added that the facility Ms. Burrow had visited was not the stadium that had been subjected to the inspection she was referring to.

The committee said that its "108 construction workers live in a refurbished accommodation on Street No. 23 in Doha's Industrial Area, which has been visited by TV crews from Reuters and ZDF in the past weeks. The International Trade Union Confederation never visited our accommodation, nor requested to do so."

The committee asserted further that the ITUC had failed to raise its concern with Al Wakrah SC. It said that the club was building 24 rooms with kitchens and living rooms where its workers would be housed two to a room by the end of this month.

ITUC spokeswoman Gemma Swart appeared to evade the committee's criticism, saying: "We can only comment on what we saw - which we have done. CNN reported 38 workers, which we referenced. This is indicative of an administration who does not take responsibility for workers."

Ms. Burrow's report appeared to be referring primarily to visits to sites unrelated to the World Cup. She said she had "visited several thousand workers in ten labour camps to the east and south of (the Qatari capital) of Doha. Labour camps are run by slum landlords who rent them to companies, or are managed by the companies themselves. A camp boss or company security guard patrols the camp. Many do not even provide fresh water. I tasted the salty water used for drinking and washing... It is clear that no inspector has visited the labour camps we saw for a long time, if ever."

The report asserted further that some employers demand deposits of $275 by workers before they are allowed to leave for holidays and that some 2,500 Indonesian maids flee a year to escape abuse by their sponsors. Those assertion referred to non-World Cup related workers and domestic personnel, according to Qatari officials.

Ms. Burrow said Qatar was more interested in its public image rather than improvement of workers' material conditions. Qatar has taken a public relations beating despite its pledges to adhere to international standards and preparatory work to remove corruption and unethical middle men from the recruitment process that puts workers in debt even before they arrive in the Gulf state.

The report charged that Qatar has yet to implement its promises and principles adopted in various workers' charters. It also asserted that six cases unrelated to World Cup projects reported on 26 May 2013 to the labour ministry at the ministry's request involving substandard accommodation, failure to pay agreed wages, provide adequate healthcare and grant annual leave, had yet to be acted on.

The ITUC is pressuring FIFA to demand that Qatar abolish its kafala system that is one of the more restrictive ones in the Gulf. The demand is politically sensitive because of fears among the Gulf state's minority population of Qatari nationals, who account for ten percent of the Gulf state's 2 million inhabitants, that they could lose control of their state, society and culture to a majority of foreigners.

Ali Khalifa al Kuwari, a government critic and democracy activist, reflects sentiment among a significant swath of Qataris with his repeated calls for a halt to the import of foreign labour. However, If a halt were adopted, the government could find it difficult to achieve its goal that includes the hosting of the World Cup of turning Qatar at break-neck speed into a 21st century city state. Qatar is expected to hire up to a million additional workers to complete huge infrastructure projects in advance of the World Cup.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Al Kuwari argues that Qatari rulers as well as other rulers in the Gulf benefit from a demographic imbalance in which foreigners account for an ever larger percentage of the population. "The great influx of immigrant workers, regardless of how necessary they are, is a benefit to the ruler, who is keen to treat people as temporary and readily disposable, rather than as citizens with all their attendant rights," Mr. Al Kuwari said in a past interview with Germany's Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

He noted that the number of Qatari nationals as a percentage of the total population had dropped from 40 percent in 1970 to 12 in 2010, If population projections of five million inhabitants in 2022 cited by Mr. Al Kuwari as the basis for Qatar's multi-billion dollar metro and railway projects are correct the percentage of Qatari nationals would drop even more dramatically.

"If Qataris are unable to apply pressure to halt this growing imbalance and begin gradual reform, their natural position at the head of society will fall away and they will be rendered incapable of reforming the other and newer problems. Indeed, they will be transformed into a deprived and marginalized minority in their own land. The perpetuation of this growing imbalance threatens to uproot Qatari society, to erase its identity and culture, to take its mother tongue, Arabic, out of circulation, and erode the role of its citizens in owning and running their own country," Mr. Al Kuwari warned .

In an interview with Al Jazeera, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke rejected responsibility for effecting change in Qatar. "FIFA is not a United Nations. FIFA is about sport.... We can tell the country it goes against FIFA's rules, it goes against FIFA's ethics codes. It goes against FIFA''s principle. And we can help and change. But we cannot be seen as responsible for what's happening in different countries," Mr. Valcke said.

Mr. Valcke said that Qatar was "making progress. I am not saying that it will change in six months because that's not the case, it takes time. What we have to do is to ensure that there will be no more (workers') deaths, that you will have a level of safety and security for the people who are working there which is the best. Because we cannot afford FIFA to be accused every time there is an accident that we are responsible for this accident," Mr. Valcke said referring to trade union and media reports of hundreds of work-related workers' deaths in Qatar in recent years.

A recent documentary on Qatar's state-owned Al Jazeera television network meanwhile highlighted the role of Gulf-based contractors and local Asian recruiters in a recruitment process and indentured labour system that forces foreign workers to dip into their savings and take out loans to pay thousands of dollars in local agents fees only to find when they arrive in their country of employment that they are earning less than anticipated. The documentary focused on the supply of cheap Asian labour to US forces in Afghanistan and the role of Dubai-based companies in the process. It made no mention of Qatar.

Qatar Foundation has sought to address the issue of corrupt middlemen by adopting a charter for foreign workers that stipulates that workers should not pay for their recruitment. So far that remains a promise that not only Qatar has to make good on but also others like the US government, which as documented in the Al Jazeera documentary, has a large number of contract employees in Afghanistan who have been effectively trafficked.

For Qatar however, the stakes are high. Its reputation, a key element of its strategy to develop soft power in the absence of hard power, is at risk. Hosting the 2022 World Cup is central to that strategy. It needs to adopt a proactive rather than a reactive communications strategy and match words with deeds to repair already substantial reputational damage and prevent the labour controversy from escalating. That is all the more the case with the issue becoming part of a larger regional struggle for power.

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.