Big-money World Cup sponsors may be the last hope for Qatar's migrant workers

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Carol Hills: Here’s another issue that comes up for debate in the US whenever a new free trade agreement is being considered: poor or even abusive conditions for workers in developing nations. Critics here often push for amendments that would protect workers abroad. A similar push is underway to force the organizers of the 2022 soccer World Cup to improve labor conditions in Qatar. The tournament is still seven years away, but already hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are there building stadiums and all the infrastructure, and the government of Qatar has been heavily criticized for allowing those workers to be abused and exploited. They don’t like people talking about it, either. On monday here on the show, we heard from a BBC colleague who went to Qatar to report on this and wound up in jail. Today, there’s an update on the bigger picture, and The World’s resident soccer guy, William Troop, is here to fill us in.


William Troop: Yeah, hi Carol. Today, Amnesty International issued a report that says Qatar is failing to do enough to treat these workers right. And that’s despite a promise by Qatar last year to address in a variety of ways in which workers are being exploited in the country: everything from harsh working conditions, especially in the heat that is the norm in Qatar, to the practice of withholding pay from workers or confiscating their passports so they can’t leave when they choose to. Amnesty is not saying that there haven’t been any improvements on these issues, but the report does accuse Qatar of promising very little and delivering even less.


Hills: So, how’s Qatar responded to this report?


Troop: Very carefully. This is a very serious issue for Qatar, and it goes beyond the buildup to the World Cup. There’s a huge building boom in the emirate fueled by oil money, and a very small indigenous population, so not a lot of indigenous workers. So, the estimated 1.5 million migrants from countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines--these guys are key to the emirate’s plans to literally build itself up. So, Qatar’s response today has been careful. They say they’re making a big effort to improve conditions for migrant workers, changing the law to get them paid more efficiently, for example, or building new housing for them. But Amnesty and other critics say that’s just not enough. Here’s what Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri says.


Mustafa Qadri: Workers are not free to choose their employer, to change their employer, to leave the country at will. The employers have this phenomenal power over their employees. Our complaint is that none of these key problems have been addressed by the Qataris, despite now being 12 months since they promised to begin to resolve these problems.


Hills: Okay, so Amnesty International says Qatar isn’t improving conditions for migrant workers fast enough, but what about the soccer tournament itself in 2022? What’s going to happen with that?


Troop: Well, my guess is that it’s going to happen. The governing body of soccer, FIFA, remains committed to it, and FIFA is notorious for being very slow to change its mind on anything. In fact, the accusation is that the only thing that influences FIFA is money. And that might be the key actually, because this week two big World Cup sponsors, Coca Cola and Visa, actually spoke up about labor conditions in Qatar, and urged FIFA to do more to push Qatar to improve those conditions. And if it’s true that money talks when it comes to FIFA, I think FIFA will respond to this and try to at least look like it’s doing something about it.


Hills: The World’s soccer guy, William Troop. Thanks a lot.


Troop: You’re welcome.


Hills: This is The World.