|"Fans take their seats before 2009's Brazil v England friendly in Doha, Qatar." (Owen Humphreys/PA Archive/Press Association Images)|
By Nick Cohen
The Observer, September 21, 2013
"With the European football association, Uefa, reaching the unavoidable conclusion that you cannot play competitive sport in the 50C heat of a Qatari summer, the way is clear for the international football association, Fifa, to break with precedent and make a decision that does not seem corrupt or senseless or both. All being well, the 2022 tournament will be held in the winter. Just one niggling question remains: how many lives will be lost so that the Fifa World Cup™ can live up to its boast that it is the most successful festival of sport on the planet. 'More workers will die building World Cup infrastructure than players will take to the field,' predicts Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Even if the teams in Qatar use all their substitutes, she is likely to be right. Qatar's absolute monarchy, run by the fabulously rich and extraordinarily secretive Al Thani clan, no more keeps health and safety statistics than it allows free elections. The Trade Union Confederation has had to count the corpses the hard way. It found that 83 Indians have died so far this year. The Gulf statelet was also the graveyard for 119 Nepalese construction workers. With 202 migrants from other countries dying over the same nine months, Ms Burrow is able to say with confidence there is at least one death for every day of the year. The body count can only rise now that Qatar has announced that it will take on 500,000 more migrants, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, to build the stadiums, hotels and roads for 2022. Not all the fatalities are on construction sites. The combination of back-breaking work, nonexistent legal protections, intense heat and labour camps without air conditioning allows death to come in many guises.
To give you a taste of its variety, the friends of Chirari Mahato went online to describe how he would work from 6am to 7pm. He would return to a hot, unventilated room he shared with 12 others. Because he died in his sleep, rather than on site, his employers would not accept that they had worked him to death. There are millions of workers like him around the Gulf. When we gawp at the wealth that allows the Qatari royals to buy the Olympic Village and Chelsea Barracks, we miss their plight, and the strangeness of the oil rich states, too. How to characterise them? 'Absolute monarchy' does not begin to capture a society such as Qatar, where migrants make up 99% of the private sector workforce. Apartheid South Africa is a useful point of reference. The 225,000 Qatari citizens can form trade unions and strike. The roughly 1.8 million migrants cannot. Sparta also comes to mind. But instead of a warrior elite living off the labour of helots, we have plutocrats and sybarites sustained by faceless armies of disposable migrants. The official justification for oppression is, as so often, religious. Migrants and employers are bound by the kafala system -- taken from Islamic law on the adoption of children. 'Kafala' derives from 'to feed'. Nourishment is the last thing the system provides, however. It delivers captive labour instead. Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employers' consent. As Human Rights Watch says, if workers walk out, the employers -- the adoptive parents -- can say they have absconded and the authorities will arrest them. In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor. This stipulation means that they can be held hostage if they threaten to sue over a breach of contract. Wouldn't it make a bracing change if the religious leaders we hear condemning free speech as blasphemy so often could find the time to damn this exploitation? It is not just poor construction workers who suffer. One might expect that Fifa would have been concerned about the fate of foreign footballers working under kafala contracts. Abdeslam Ouaddou, who once played for Fulham, has warned players not to go near Qatar. Speaking from experience -- he played for Qatar SC in the Qatari domestic league -- he said that if a player is injured or his form drops, the club can break his contract. If the player goes to lawyers, the club (as 'sponsor') can refuse to let him leave the country until he drops his case. Ouaddou got out of Qatar after much tortuous negotiation. But French player Zahir Belounis, a former captain of the team Al-Jaish, is trapped in the country with his family and hasn't been paid for two years. When he went to the international press, he was threatened with defamation proceedings. After promising the International Trade Union Confederation that it would ensure human rights were respected in Qatar, Fifa tells me that it is 'promoting a dialogue' to ensure dignified working conditions. Sharan Burrow's colleagues say all they hear is PR flam. It is not just Qatar in 2022. The corruption and waste around the 2014 World Cup has provoked riots in Brazil. As for 2018, Putin's Duma has already restricted the rights of workers preparing the stadiums for the World Cup. Fifa strikes me as a decadent organisation in the political rather than literary meaning of the word. It is an institution whose behaviour contradicts all of its professed purposes. If it cared about football, it would not even have thought of staging a tournament in the Qatari summer. If it cared about footballers, it would take up the case of Belounis. And if it respected human life, it would say that the kafala system could not govern World Cup contracts. I don't know how much longer sports journalists can ignore the abuse Fifa tolerates. The World Cup is overturning all the cliches. People say that 'football is a matter of life or death', said Bill Shankly. 'It's more important than that.' Shankly was joking. Qatar and Fifa appear to mean it. Sport is 'war minus the shooting', said Orwell. There may not be any actual shooting in Qatar but workers will die nonetheless. The quote that ought to haunt all who love football is CLR James's paraphrase of Kipling: 'What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?' James was writing about how sport was bound up in the Caribbean with colonialism, race and class. Anyone writing about the World Cup must also acknowledge that the beautiful game is now bound up with racial privilege, exploitation and the deaths of men, who should not be forgotten so readily."
[n.b. This is the complete text of the dispatch.]