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Running interference: tackling trafficking

Without The Guardian, I might have remained blissfully ignorant of any preparation for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Sidestepping, for a moment, the imminence of the 2014 (Brazil) and 2018 (Russia) World Cup tournaments, I am stereotypically American. I do not follow soccer, or football, hence the mixed metaphoric title of this post; the only context in which I will sanction the word “tackling” in anti-trafficking discourse. I am, however, no stranger to the keen perseverance of media and activist reporting on the links between A Major Sporting Event and human trafficking.

Refreshingly, media rhetoric is momentarily distracted from the ubiquitous sex trafficking hype that so often colors discussions of such events, as per the London Olympics and latest American Super Bowl (the other football). Instead, the latest coverage on Qatar – led by an exposé under The Guardian’s modern day slavery series – focuses on Nepali construction workers employed for infrastructure projects built in anticipation of the World Cup. Mirroring the media outcry over the state of the garment industry in Bangladesh, coverage here was spurred by the deaths of these workers over the summer from heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents and subsequent International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates that 4000 workers could die before the games. Confusingly, while The Guardian’s focus is on Nepali workers, ITUC estimates are extrapolated from current mortality figures for Nepali and Indian workers and used to predict mortality for all migrant workers in Qatar over the next seven years.

In any case, headlines expounding the confluence of slavery and death seem to imply that conditions reach a tipping point of exploitation: it is not merely enough to be exploited and abused – things here are so bad people are dying. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron’s advice to Qatar on securing safety standards for the World Cup seems to indicate that the London Olympics met a threshold of success merely because no one died:

We, in the Olympics, I think I’m right in saying, managed to build that entire Olympic Park with the best ever record on safety – no one dying during construction, keeping injuries to an absolute minimum. It can be done. The British construction industry we really can hold up as a good example to the rest of the world.

Surely we’ve evolved past the basic achievement of keeping workers alive in devising modern labor standards.

While local laws exist in Qatar to protect workers (and the State is a party to six ILO Conventions protecting against things like forced labor), systemic abuses compounded by a lack of enforcement measures result in exploitation. As a result of international pressure (and two whole years after being awarded the FIFA contract), the government has promised increased compliance with local labor laws through company raids, and interpretation services to assist workers. The Supreme Committee, responsible for the World Cup in Qatar, devised a Workers’ Charter, which was denounced by the ITUC as inadequate in protecting workers. Other standards have been devised, but these initiatives are non-binding and will remain unsuccessful in protecting workers without substantial changes in the law.

Finger pointing appears to be the front-running strategy for various parties (arguably) responsible for or complicit in worker exploitation. Although some FIFA representatives appear quite distressed and the organization maintains “FIFA will continue as part of our social responsibility strategy to address opportunities to increase the positive and reduce the negative impacts of the FIFA World Cup towards 2022”, FIFA’s president Seep Blatter persists in inaction, arguing FIFA lacks the power to effect change through intervention. The irony in this argument appears to have been lost, perhaps within the projected $200 billion investment in infrastructure spurred by the tournament and the expected political and economic gains underlying bids for the World Cup in the first place. Some international construction companies have reacted with CSR friendly responses, pledging “to use their influence to improve safety standards and living conditions that have led workers to die from falls, traffic accidents, dehydration and exhaustion” leaving the definition of “influence” to one’s imagination. Likely more influential is the potential civil action taken on behalf of migrant workers against UK contractors and consultants that do not uphold their rights.

What about the Nepalese government? According to the Guardian, officials are aware of problems, but blame “the recruitment agencies, which it [the government] accuses of conning vulnerable workers into bogus contracts and inflated recruitment fees”. Divas Acharya, Director of the Department of Foreign Employment in Nepal was quoted in the same article, saying, “we are trying to do more, but we are short of staff and resources.” Heavily economically dependent on remittances, perhaps the Nepal should take a lesson from the Philippines in improving protections for its migrant workers.

In focusing on Nepalese construction workers, the media has isolated a very specific problem, but risks drawing attention from larger underlying issues. Although Nepalese workers constitute the largest group of laborers in Qatar, they are not the only group subjected to workplace abuse, within or outside the construction industry – the Indian ambassador in Qatar reported the deaths of 700 Indian workers between 2010 and 2012. Moreover, worker exploitation in the Middle East is not a new area for human rights advocates. Specifically, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented worker abuse in Qatar in 2012 in its report Building a Better World Cup. Adam Coogle from HRW points to regional commonalities:

Taxi drivers in the United Arab Emirates, domestic workers in Kuwait, street cleaners in Bahrain, oil-field workers in Saudi Arabia, and security guards in Oman face the same abuses as construction workers in Qatar, and the reasons are more or less identical. [Hyperlinks used as they appear in the original text.]

Beyond the Gulf, illegal recruitment fees, non- or delayed payment of wages, passport confiscation, debt, and poor working and living conditions, unfortunately, commonly cut across low-wage industries. The kafala system itself, in which a worker’s employment and immigration status is tied to one employer, isn’t restricted to the Middle East; Singapore, for instance, operates such a system for foreign migrant workers. Under-investigated, but briefly mentioned in the media, are the child labor implications of construction work in Qatar (such as in cases in which documents are falsified to allow under-aged workers) as well as the reasons for which Nepalese workers appear to have a higher death rate than other construction workers. Both warrant further research to target prevention measures – and lead to questions regarding accountability.

Low-wage workers are not the only ones affected by the sponsorship system. Last spring CNN reported on the abuse of soccer players in Qatar, who are also bound by kafala. Players reported complaints to FIFA, which has regulations for protection and mechanisms for redress, though investigations are ongoing. Relatedly, on a global scale, Foot Solidaire works to inhibit the trafficking of young boys from Africa to Europe to play soccer. Again, the support of FIFA appeared short-lived. Perhaps the subject of another post, it may be worth noting that children exploited in sports (and recruitment) remains under the radar, as Anti-Slavery International discovered in the process of investigating children engaged as camel jockeys in the UAE. For instance, referring to witnessed racing in 2010, although “it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to take part in camel racing in the UAE […] the race was watched by the police”.

Undoubtedly, media reporting can generate activism, followed by political pressure. For instance, an investigation by Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) in Qatar was prompted by The Guardian’s exposés. A Big Event may catalyze discussions on labor rights protections; encouraging the events’ stakeholders to collaborate and examine the potential challenges to ensuring those protections, such as with a recent conference on the 2014 Commonwealth Games. However, caution should be exercised when campaigning acts in a predictive capacity – when the nature of one event shapes what we “expect to see” in another context, particularly as the relationship between trafficking and large sporting events remains under-researched.

As the Central America Women’s Network (CAWN) reported in September in an evaluation of media and advocacy narratives during the London Olympics, “the forecasts involved extremely large numbers and focused in the main on an expected rise in the number of women to be trafficked for sexual exploitation.” At the same time, “a body of evidence already existed prior to the Olympics demonstrating that major sporting events do not contribute to a rise in the incidence of trafficking for sexual exploitation.” Although afforded surprisingly little coverage, the state of labor trafficking in Brazil (home of the World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016) appears to be simultaneously occurring and ignored (in September) and expected, yet not researched (as of 18 October).

NGOs, researchers and the media have a responsibility to collaborate – to positively inform news coverage and challenge assumptions. Placing labor issues in an accessible, international forum not only allows stakeholders to be held to account, but hopefully contribute to reforms lasting beyond one Major Event.

1 Comment

  1. […] Running interference: tackling trafficking […]

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