The trade union leading attempts to improve conditions for migrant workers in Qatar has warned that a positive World Cup legacy is unlikely after proposals for a migrant workers’ centre and wider reform were met with “deafening silence” by government officials.
The Building and Wood Workers’ International has been working with the Qatari government since 2016 and was part of a collective effort that led two years to the abolition of the kafala system, under which workers could not change jobs without their employer’s permission. Union officials, however, now believe that attempts to cement change – including the creation of a migrant workers’ centre – have been stonewalled and see “no sign that sustainable change is coming”.
The news will come as a blow to those within football and outside who had been clinging to the prospect of salvaging a positive outcome for a World Cup characterised by human rights concerns, chief among them the deaths of more than 6,500 migrant workers since the tournament was awarded to Qatar in 2010.
“After more than a decade of the Campaign for Decent Work around the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, two days ahead of the tournament, the Building and Wood Workers’ International … calls on the Qatari authorities to join with BWI to build on and expand improvements made and to establish a migrant workers’ centre that will enable workers to have a say in their destinies,” the organisation said.
“That is a legacy for Qatar and the world that will live on beyond the end of the World Cup tournament. However, to date, there is no sign that sustainable change is forthcoming.”
The BWI made three requests to the Qatari labour ministry a year ago, asking for the establishment of a workers’ centre, implementation of higher health and safety regulations in the construction sector, and more consistent enforcement of the changes already agreed.
The BWI said “it was regrettable” that it had “still not received a response on any of the positive initiatives. Instead, there has been a deafening silence. In football terms, migrant workers are playing the extra time and the result is still unknown.”
Whereas some groups have called for a boycott the BWI had chosen to engage with Qatar. The union believes progress has been made. “On several occasions, BWI has recognised advances made in Qatar in recent years on labour legislation,” it said. Its disappointment is now tangible and has led to frustration with the Qatari government and the tournament organisers, Fifa, which the BWI accuses of failing to live up to its own standards on human rights.
“Fifa adopted a human rights policy and BWI was represented on a small body to oversee progress” the union said. “The policy spells out its commitment to respect all internationally recognised human rights and to promote the protection of these rights. This includes supporting, accompanying, and sustaining reforms and enabling further advances in the protection of the human rights of migrant workers in Qatar toward and beyond 2022.
“However, Fifa’s human rights commitments no longer seem to receive the same priority that they did when the policies were developed and adopted. There is a fundamental conflict between a strong human rights policy and a ‘business as usual’ approach.”
A Qatari government official said: “Qatar remains in close dialogue with all its international partners, including the Building and Wood Workers’ International and the International Labour Organization (ILO), about the future of our labour reform programme.
“Qatar first entered its cooperation programme with the ILO in 2017, marking the opening of the first regional project office. We extended this fruitful partnership through 2023 in order to further support the implementation of reforms. Qatar is committed to its journey of progress. What we have achieved in a few short years took decades to achieve in other parts of the world, and in many countries, this process is still ongoing.
“Transforming our labour market and protecting the rights of all workers in Qatar is a priority for our government that will continue long after the end of the World Cup.”
The Guardian has approached Fifa for comment.