FIFA holds meeting amid Qatar rights storm

AFP, Thursday 3 Oct 2013

Global football's governing body FIFA on Thursday kicked off a crunch meeting amid claims of rights abuses by 2022 World Cup Qatar and wrangling over plans to hold the tournament in the winter

Joseph Blatter, president of the FIFA,
Joseph Blatter, president of the FIFA (Photo: AP)

FIFA's executive committee had already been scheduled to grapple with the issue of whether to shift the World Cup from its traditional June and July slot in order to escape the stifling Gulf heat, a plan which has angered European leagues that fear mid-season havoc.

But the pressure rose to fever pitch ahead of the two-day meeting behind closed doors at FIFA's Swiss base, after new charges of slavery-style treatment of migrant labourers working on Qatar's massive infrastructure projects for the 2022 tournament.

Four dozen Swiss and international trade union activists rallied at FIFA's gates in a leafy suburb overlooking Zurich.

They hammered home their message by brandishing referee-style red cards, chanting "Red Card for FIFA" and "No World Cup in Qatar without workers' rights".

FIFA communications chief Walter De Gregorio, who emerged to meet the demonstrators, said freedom of protest was crucial.

"But it's nothing new. We are very much aware of the situation," he told reporters, saying FIFA and Qatar were tackling the issue.

"Together, I think, we're going to find a solution to improve, or maybe to change, the situation that for sure, for everybody, is unacceptable," he said.

FIFA has held regular discussions with international human rights groups and unions for two years, he underlined.

"We're trying to put pressure on Qatar to change a situation which is unacceptable for all concerned. But I want to highlight that it's not FIFA against Qatar. We're all on the same page, trying to change the situation for the better of everyone. Qatar can change, and Qatar is very open to all discussions we're having," he added.

Separately, Amnesty International announced it would publish an in-depth report next month on the situation in Qatar, the world's wealthiest nation per capita.

"The combination of forms of exploitation in certain cases that we have documented, we would consider that to amount to forced labour," James Lynch, Amnesty's researcher on foreign workers in the Gulf, told AFP.

Qatar and FIFA have been in the eye of the storm after a report last week by British daily The Guardian on Nepalese workers at World Cup projects.

Quoting documents from Kathmandu's embassy in Doha, the newspaper said thousands of Nepalese -- at 370,000 the second largest group of labourers in Qatar after Indians -- faced exploitation and abuses amounting to "modern-day slavery".

The report said that dozens had died working in Qatar in recent weeks.

Beyond the fatalities, critics also point to the confiscation of passports, prevention of workers from leaving the country, withholding wages for long periods, and financial penalties for absence.

Other concerns include false promises on the nature of work, debts to recruiters or moneylenders, and crowded, squalid camps for labourers.

Gulf states' rules on foreign workers have faced criticism before, but the World Cup has intensified the spotlight.

FIFA expressed serious concern after The Guardian's report, while Qatar rejected the claims.

"There is no slavery or forced labour in Qatar," Ali al-Marri, chairman of its National Human Rights Committee, said on Monday.

Qatar has commissioned a probe by global law firm DLA Piper, saying it takes its international commitments seriously.

It also announced plans to double the number of labour inspectors in the emirate to 150.

That failed to satisfy that International Trade Union Confederation, which raised the alarm in August and is sending a delegation to Qatar next week.

"There are already labour inspectors and they have no impact," Sharan Burrow, secretary-general of the ITUC, said on Tuesday. "The promise simply to increase the number of labour inspectors is weak and disappointing."

"The construction frenzy for the football World Cup risks costing the lives of at least 4,000 workers over the next seven years if steps are not taken to guarantee the rights of migrant workers," said Burrow.

With Qatar's stadium construction yet to begin, the deaths are not directly related to the football side of the World Cup, FIFA's De Gregorio underlined.

"But any death is a death too many," he said.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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