World soccer’s governing body conceded on Thursday that there is little it can do to remedy the ordeal for migrant workers in Qatar reduced to slave labor conditions in creating the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, but a FIFA board member dismissed all talk of reversing the decision to hold the tournament there, even if conditions do not improve.
A European parliament hearing on the scandal, first revealed by the Guardian last year, was told that Qatar is a slave state for migrant workers, scores of whom have died in appalling conditions while or after working on the building sites of the Gulf country.
Theo Zwanzinger, Germany’s member of the FIFA executive, admitted conditions for migrant workers in Qatar are “absolutely unacceptable,” agreed that human rights considerations should play a bigger role in the decisions of the world and European soccer authorities, and added that FIFA would be carrying out detailed and independent monitoring of the working conditions surrounding the World Cup building boom, but that there could be no going back on decisions already taken.
“This feudal system existed [in Qatar] before the World Cup,” Zwanzinger said. “What do you expect of a football organization? FIFA is not the lawmaker in Qatar.”
Human rights activists and trade unionists demanded a more forceful role by FIFA at the meeting, which also heard wrenching testimony from French-Algerian soccer player Zahir Belounis, who had his passport confiscated and was denied an exit permit because of a dispute with his Qatari club. He was trapped in Qatar for two years largely unpaid and unable to leave.
“I just wanted to go home,” Belounis told the hearing. “I’m the victim of a system of modern slavery.”
Much of the criticism of Qatar has centered on the so-called kafala system in the labor market, which essentially confers quasi-ownership rights over employees or migrant laborers, a form of neo-feudalism.
The Qatari World Cup organizers submitted a 50-page report this week pledging to improve the plight of migrant workers. Chairing the meeting, German Greens lawmaker Barbara Lochbihler said the Qatari promises were welcome, but that a more systemic policy is needed rather than piecemeal remedies.
The Qatari government sent a letter to the parliament in Brussels on Thursday stating that about 2,000 companies had been blacklisted last year and almost 500 so far this year, for questionable labor market and employment practices.
Lawmakers complained at the hearing that the Qatari embassy in Brussels had declined to take part in the hearing and that firms recruiting workers for contracts in Qatar had also stayed away, as did UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.
Zwanzinger signaled that there were frictions within FIFA and UEFA over how to deal with political, ethical and human rights issues.
“If you continue to run the World Cup in a state which enslaves workers, it shames the game. The government must end of the system of kafala if the World Cup is to be played in Qatar in 2022,” International Trades Union Congress general secretary Sharan Burrow said. “We want [to] hear from the FIFA president and executive committee about how they will guarantee that the World Cup must only go ahead if there is legal reform to kafala and for workers’ rights. The new charter from World Cup organizers in Qatar sets out sham conditions, without even any means to ensure that companies comply.”