A construction worker on a building site on May 10, 2014 in Doha, Qatar. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

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.

Jim Murphy is shadow international development secretary and Labour MP for East Renfrewshire

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496