The enslavement, mistreatment and deaths of migrant workers building the stadia and infrastructure for World Cup 2022 in Qatar have caught the world’s attention, following extensive reporting in the Guardian newspaper. It is an issue that has long been recognised and warned against by human rights organisations, and while FIFA is being forced to confront the problem, it seems to have ruled out the idea of moving the competition elsewhere. The World Cup will go ahead in Qatar in 2022 and the debate over a summer or winter games merely distracts from the abysmal working conditions of the thousands of migrant workers who will build the required facilities.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called on the FAI to ensure FIFA insists that the rights of workers are respected in the run-up to Qatar 2022. Attention should not be focused only on the role of the footballing associations in this scandal. There has been a significant interest from Irish companies in the lucrative construction contracts being offered ahead of Qatar 2022. Deloitte estimates that around $200 billion will be spent on construction for the World Cup in oil-rich Qatar.
With the construction industry experiencing a sharp decline in Ireland in recent years, many companies have been looking overseas for business opportunities, including in the Middle East. Enterprise Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have actively encouraged this. Minister Jan O’Sullivan commented on her return from a 2011 visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar:
Major infrastructure and development projects currently underway and planned, including the world cup 2022 in Qatar, all hold the potential for Irish companies to win more business.
Mercury Engineering has already been successful in this regard. RTE Sport reported in 2010 that that Dublin-based company “played a key role in Qatar’s success in winning the bid to host the World Cup in 2022”. The firm was contracted to supply a cooling and air conditioning system for a showcase stadium which featured in Qatar’s bid. The company’s Managing Director, Michael Kennedy, recounted that a team of 160 skilled workers completed this task in 10 weeks. It has also been reported that “labourers and engineers worked through the nights while concerned members of the royal family, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir’s son who headed the bid committee, checked on progress with unannounced visits”. Kennedy has explained the company’s ambitions in the area:
The team did an excellent job on this prototype stadium and we are now looking forward to playing a key role in the construction of the various stadia and other projects in the run up to the 2022 World Cup.
One wonders whether it is possible for Irish companies to avoid being implicated in the violations of human rights occurring in Qatar, including what amounts to slavery and forced labour. It would seem not as things stand, given the pervasiveness of labour abuses in the country. Nicholas McGeehan, of Human Rights Watch, considers that “much-needed and potentially hugely beneficial reform of the labour system is feasible, if Qatar’s leaders show the requisite political will”. Without any such improvement, however, the “construction frenzy” will lead to the deaths of around 4,000 migrant workers before 2022, according to estimates by the International Trade Union Confederation.
The Irish government has committed itself to United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights and accordingly should insist on respect for human rights by Irish companies operating in Qatar. This international framework requires States to make it clear to business enterprises domiciled in their territory that they must respect human rights “throughout their operations”. The British government has urged UK construction companies to respect human rights and to obey local employment laws, although some of these are clearly part of the problem, including the notorious kafala system.
Irish companies implicated in forced labour would be open to prosecution in Ireland under recently introduced criminal legislation, even if such forced labour occurred outside of Ireland. This week, Construction Manager, the magazine of the British Chartered Institute of Building warned UK firms that they could face civil claims because of labour rights violations against migrant workers in Qatar. The same applies to Irish companies. There is more than reputational damage at stake here, so companies should take heed. The Irish government also needs to get serious about ensuring its own commitments to human rights and not be blinded by the allure of business opportunities in undemocratic and repressive countries.