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We need to stand up for workers' rights in Qatar and elsewhere

Too many are risking death so that the world's richest sport can hold a festival.

Too many are risking death in Qatar so that the world's richest sport can hold a festival.
A construction worker on a building site on May 10, 2014 in Doha, Qatar. Photograph: Getty Images.

In just four weeks, the World Cup kicks off in Brazil. Like hundreds of millions of people the world over I couldn't be more excited; I've got Brazil vs Croatia 9pm on Thursday 12 June circled in my diary. When we get down to the business end of the tournament you can bet that someone somewhere will trot out the old Bill Shankly quote - "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

We all know what Bill meant. When your team is down to the last ten minutes and needs a goal we all know how important that can feel. You sometimes see TV cameras catching images of people who would never step inside a church clasping their hands in apparent prayer for a last minute goal. But we also know, underneath it all Bill Shankly didn't really mean that football was more significant than life. Football should never be a matter of life and death - nowhere is that truism more certain than in Qatar.

This morning in Doha, the hundreds of thousands of construction workers that live in the makeshift camps that ring the city woke up to reports that the Qatari government accepts that abuse is taking place, and have promised change. The detail of the Qatari announcement are still pretty unclear. Depending on who you believe we either have widespread reform, the end of the Kafala system and a new age of employer/employee relations to replace the old sponsorship system, or a simple rebranding of the old regime, and another missed opportunity.

Last month, I visited the worker camps in Qatar and the conditions I saw there were filthy.  The workers I met told me of exploitation, deception, and abuse, unscrupulous agents, and uncaring employers, passports seized, and freedom to go home to their families denied. That's why change is needed.

At a sometimes chaotic press conference in Doha, Qatari officials produced two things. The long awaited DLA Piper report - an audit into the accusations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others of abuse, and the much heralded reforms. The DLA Piper report was clear - and made sixty two recommendations on a variety of issues from the controversial Kafala system to contracts, wages, accommodation and health and safety. Crucially the report contains the Qatari's own figure on migrant deaths - 964 in 2012 and 2013. Including 35 from falls, 28 who committed suicide and 246 from "sudden cardiac death".

In light of the high number of heart attacks, the report calls for an independent study into the cause of these sudden deaths. In response, the Qatari's announced their reforms. Plans to replace Kafala, changes to the rules on exit visas and switching employers, promises for more and tougher inspection, new accommodation standards and harsher penalties for those caught exploiting migrant workers.

After all the build up, Amnesty International described yesterday's announcement as a missed opportunity. The DLA Piper report and its recommendations are not set to be implemented in full and the modest changes we were promised yesterday are still subject to legislative scrutiny. But nevertheless, yesterday was a small step on a very long journey. It is absolutely vital that the reforms promised are implemented quickly and fully. But FIFA must insist that more is done. The 2022 World Cup cannot be played in clear conscience unless the industrial scale exploitation of workers is gone for good

These measures represent the first round of reforms, but a lot more needs to be done for football to come anywhere close to having a clear conscience. For Labour, workers' rights - like the migrant workers in Qatar - will be a crucial part of our development policy. At its heart, development is about more than pounds and pence, it's about power. Some people have it and too many people don't.

You could find no better example of the power imbalances we seek to address than the workers like these whose desperation to work hard and get on lead them into the quicksand of forced labour. Political power, economic power and the social power of opportunity denied. Too many are risking death in Qatar so that the world's richest sport can hold a festival - truly the ugly side of the beautiful game. That's why it's compulsory that FIFA acts - they wanted the World Cup to be in Qatar and they have a responsibility.

The UK government should also act. There is a little known but nevertheless important UK DFID programme called "Work in Freedom". Using existing budgets the scheme should be extended to cover construction workers travelling to Qatar. But let's be clear - this is not just a problem in one tiny state in the Gulf. Of course we should use the extra scrutiny provided by the hosting of a world cup to push for change but we have to look wider too.

So Labour is committed to reverse this government's decision to cut funding to the ILO and we will work with our international partners like the ITUC to ensure that those who have the will to work hard, have the power to get on.

In Qatar and across the world the campaign for human dignity and fair rights for workers goes on. Fair day's work, for a fair day's pay, under fair conditions for all and a World Cup not built on the deaths of migrant workers - that's our goal.  Football fans the world over can help make that happen. It's time for everyone who loves football to stand up and speak out.