The draw for the group stage of the World Cup is a reminder that Qatar 2022 is just months away. But, despite years of international pressure, the human rights situation in the emirate remains cause for concern.
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“This was an important step,” Matthias Ginter told reporters after taking part in a 90-minute meeting with representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International last week.
The German Football Association (DFB) had invited experts from the two organizations to inform members of the national team about the current state of human rights situation in World Cup host Qatar. The national team defender said he and his teammates had wanted to “get further information so that we can assess everything properly on-site.”
The gathering of the national team for two friendlies was the perfect opportunity to ask a couple of questions that have been going through a lot of people’s minds: What has become of the much-criticized working conditions for the migrants, many from other countries within Asia, employed on World Cup construction projects? And has there been any noticeable improvement after a minimum wage and the right to choose one’s workplace were passed into law in 2020?
International union sees improvements
A good person to ask is Dietmar Schäfers, who in 2013, as the vice president of the International Building and Woodworkers’ Union (BHI), helped launch the “Red Card for FIFA — No World Cup Without Human Rights” campaign. In recent years, Schäfers was involved in negotiations with the World Cup organizing committee and the Labor Ministry in Qatar several times, while also visiting construction sites to view the conditions with his own eyes.
“Since 2016, we have had the opportunity as an international trade union to carry out regular inspections at all World Cup construction sites in Qatar. And we do this with our experts. So far, we have carried out 24 of these inspections,” Schäfers told DW.
“Since then, conditions for the workers have improved significantly,” Schäfers said. “For example, so-called cooling rooms have been set up where workers can escape the heat. Cooling vests have been introduced, and regular break times have been implemented.”
BHI paid particular attention to the kafala system, which is now officially banned. Among other things, foreign workers had been required to surrender their passports to their Qatari employers.
“The kafala law has effectively been abolished,” Schäfers said. “Workers can move freely and are also allowed to change employers as they wish. In addition, a minimum wage has been introduced.”
He said workers were now able to elect their own spokespersons at the construction sites and that an arbitration board has been established, which they can turn to with any problems.
Too few controls
Though these steps are positive, Schäfers said, they haven’t been implemented as well as they need to be.
“In Qatar, there are 200 inspectors for the current workforce of around 900,000,” he said. “That is far too few.”
He also believes that the Qatari government has not done a great job of sanctioning companies that violate the regulations.
“There should be more consistent penalties for construction companies that do not comply with the laws: not fines, but imprisonment and company closures,” he said. “That’s not happening yet.”
Katja Müller-Fahlbusch, who specializes in the Middle East expert at Amnesty International, paints quite a bleak picture of conditions on construction sites in Qatar.
“There have been real improvements for the approximately 2% of workers who were employed on World Cup construction sites,” she told DW. “For the remaining 98%, the situation looks much worse, because it’s not being looked at as closely.”
Müller-Fahlbusch also concurred with Schäfers’ criticism of the government for not coming down hard enough on violators of the regulations.
“Every day this goes on, workers across the country are at the mercy of unscrupulous people. Employers who stage wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and sometimes insurmountable barriers to changing jobs,” she said. “Employers are allowed to exploit their workers with impunity.”
Reforms take time
Both Müller-Fahlbusch and Schäfers believe that Qatar is on its way toward becoming a more modern society. However, it still has a long way to go, particularly regarding the rights of women and minorities.
“You simply have to accept that such reforms take time. You can’t view everything through European eyes,” Schäfers said. “The steps Qatar is taking in terms of modernization are huge by their standards. From our perspective, they are tiny.”
Fatma Al Nuaimi, director of communications for the Qatar organizing committee, appeals for patience on the issue.
“We’ve always believed that the World Cup can leave a significant social legacy,” AL Nuami said, “especially with regard to workers’ rights.” The World Cup, Al Nuaimi said, is “also an opportunity to build bridges, clear up misunderstandings and pass on our hospitality.”
‘Sustained monitoring’ in the aftermath
Müller-Fahlbusch is not as confident about Qatar’s future.
“There are still strong conservative forces that are critical of the modernization process. Resistance is forming that would prefer to reverse the social changes,” she said. “Sustained monitoring” of the human rights situation in Qatar will be required long after the World Cup, she added.
“If this does not happen, thousands more workers run the risk of becoming victims of labor abuse,” she said. “The situation for those who want to stay in Qatar after the tournament could become even more difficult.”
This article was translated from German.