By Tony Attwood
The Guardian has the story, although it is tucked away as the 17th item down on the home page of its football coverage website. The Telegraph covered it as a possibility back in October but has had nothing since. The Independent has not touched it. CNN has a short piece. Sputnik International (of whom I know nothing) has a brief piece. Otherwise nothing.
In fact the news that legal action against Fifa over its alleged involvement in the mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar has been filed in a Swiss court has not exactly made the news. One wonders why? Is it perhaps a bit too “foreign” for the taste of British readers, and “too intellectual” for football fans. Probably, for that’s how most of the media seems to view us.
Yet for some people (and as you might have guessed that very much includes me) this is the news we’ve been waiting for and all I can say is thank goodness for the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (and that’s not something I write every day).
The Confederation has confirmed that working with the Bangladesh Building and Wood Workers Federation (BBWWF) they have summoned Fifa “to appear in the commercial court in Zürich” in a case brought on behalf of the Bangladeshi migrant worker, Nadim Sharaful Alam.
The summons states that
“The Swiss court is asked to rule that Fifa acted wrongfully by selecting Qatar for the World Cup 2022 without demanding the assurance that Qatar observes fundamental human and labour rights of migrant construction workers, including the abolition of the Kafala system. The Swiss court is furthermore requested to rule that, in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, Fifa ensures that the rights of migrant construction workers are safeguarded, by insisting on adequate and effective labour reforms in Qatar, that are actually implemented.
“The Bangladeshi Unions BFTUC and BBWWF have decided to join the case as many of their members left Bangladesh to work in Qatar. These unions are actively engaged with issues pertaining to the rights of migrant workers and in the global fight for the protection of the rights of migrant workers in Middle East, specifically Qatar.”
In a letter sent to Fifa prior to the summons lawyers acting for FNV and Alam gave Gianni Infantino three weeks to accept Fifa’s complicity and pay damages before going to court.
The damages sought by Alam are relatively modest, but if the action is successful it would mean that hundreds of thousands of migrant workers could make similar claims that could run into tens of millions of pounds. More than that it would establish that Fifa is subject to the laws of humanity and decency – and that would be a major step forwards.
In essence the case is primarily about the awful way in which migrant workers are treated by Qatar (sponsors of Barcelona FC) under the kafala system (which is often classified as modern slavery).
Fifa however has always said that it is not responsible for social problems in countries that host its tournaments and that it is doing all it can (which seems to be just about nothing) to make the World Cup a catalyst for change.
In a letter to Infantino lawyers called on Fifa to “acknowledge that it has acted wrongfully by awarding the world cup to Qatar without demanding the assurance that Qatar observes fundamental human and labour rights vis-à-vis migrant construction workers whose work is related to the 2022 World Cup”.
The claim is that Fifa should have demanded the abolition of the kafala system, the guarantee of the right of migrant workers to change jobs, the guarantee of freedom for them to leave Qatar as and when they chose, and the right to unionise.
In the claim Fifa is required to acknowledge that it violated the rights of Mr Alam, who worked in Qatar as an unskilled labourer between 2014 and 2016, and demands compensation for material damages of 5,390.53 Swiss francs and “just satisfaction to the amount of 5,000 francs for the hardships he endured”.
The summary of the writ also includes a heading of “wrongful acts” which states that that “Swiss law, and also Qatari law and international law, oblige Fifa to respect fundamental human rights and refrain from wrongdoing”.
The fact this action is possible comes from a move by the Swiss government in 2012 to improve oversight of sports federations. But from the start it has been obvious who the Swiss thought were the main culprits, as the measures that the Federal Sports Office Report on Corruption recommended immediately became known as “Lex FIFA” even though they applied to all sports.
As part of “Lex FIFA” in December 2014 the Swiss parliament voted to make leaders of sports organisations and top sport officials based in Switzerland designated as so-called “Politically Exposed Persons” and thus subject to corruption investigations. Previously they had immunity. You might recall Untold (somewhat alone) got rather excited about the possibilities at the time and I did a bit of crowing about the fact we had covered this development, once the first arrests of Fifa personnel occurred.
The Netherlands citation against Fifa adds: “Fifa’s legal responsibility arose at two distinctive moments in time: (1) when it allowed Qatar to participate in the bidding contest for the World Cup 2022 and subsequently selected Qatar as host of the 2022 World Cup; and (2) when it failed and still is failing to take responsibility for the present fate of the migrant workers by not demanding Qatar to reform its labour system.”
Fifa claims that the organising committee has built much improved accommodation for those working on stadium developments, but since most workers are involved in the upgrading of the country beyond the stadia their conditions remain abject. Also little seems to have been done to deal with recruitment agencies in Nepal, India and Bangladesh that charge workers to find jobs in Qatar.
Fifa has promised to implement the findings of a report by Prof John Ruggie of Harvard University but still says it can’t be held responsible for working conditions in Qatar. It is the same argument as used by the FA in England that having membership of Fifa means it has no power over what Fifa does, and thus it can do nothing about Fifa actions.
The writ in this case argues that the cause of the infrastructure developments in Qatar is the Fifa world cup and that Fifa has the required mechanisms to force host countries to comply with whatever conditions it sets down, which of course it does – as we have seen with everything from zero tax regimes, arrests and imprisonment for wearing the wrong t-shirt in a stadium, and exclusive traffic lanes for executives.
Prof Liesbeth Zegveld, an attorney for Dutch human rights lawyers Prakken d’Oliveira, who is bringing the case alongside David Huesmann of Swiss law firm Shadenanwaelte said, “Fifa may claim that it can do nothing but that is not the case. The union would rather see the World Cup stay in Qatar and for the country to meet its responsibilities to migrant workers but Fifa could still move the World Cup if it wanted to.
“We met with senior Qatari officials and they said they needed time to introduce new laws. They may say they need time but in reality they are just buying time. In any case, the new laws do too little to change the fundamental problems facing migrant workers and will mean little unless they are enforced.”
A spokesperson for FNV, the biggest union in the Netherlands said, “The FNV takes the view that by awarding the World Cup to Qatar, the suffering of migrants increases. In any case, in situations like these, the number of migrant workers will increase. The FNV holds the Fifa responsible for this and wants to address the issue by means of this lawsuit,” the spokesperson said.
“Of course there have been improvements. Some of the migrant workers have better housing. But it is moving too slowly for the migrant workers themselves. Migrant workers die under suspicious circumstances every year.”
“The world must do everything that is possible in order to change this situation. And if you expect the world to do this, you have to begin by taking responsibility yourself. That is why FNV is taking the matter to its source, and is holding the Fifa responsible.”
Although my opinion is of course irrelevant, can I just add that I am delighted.
Tales from Untold