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7am Podcast

Journalist Kieran Pender on how the world game found itself defending human rights abuses.

Migrant workers died to bring us this World Cup

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The World Cup is the most watched sporting event on earth.

Some predict that this year’s matches in Qatar could be watched by 5 billion during the month-long tournament.

But the grand spectacle of the World Cup is stained with allegations that migrant workers have died to make it happen. So what does it take for the world to look away? And what happens when sport and politics can’t be separated?

Today, journalist Kieran Pender on how the world game found itself defending human rights abuses.

 

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Guest: Journalist, Kieran Pender

Read Transcript
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*.
 
The World Cup is the most watched sporting event on earth.
 
Some predict that this year’s event in Qatar could be watched by 5 billion over the month-long tournament.
 
But the grand spectacle of the World Cup is stained with allegations that migrant workers have died to make it happen. So what does it take for the world to look away? And what happens when sport and politics can’t be separated?
 
Today, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre Kieran Pender, on how the world game found itself defending human rights abuses.
 
It’s Thursday, November 24.
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##RUBY:
Kieran, right now the World Cup is underway in Qatar and teams including Australia’s Socceroos are playing – but this world cup, it’s become a global controversy. So, could you tell me a bit about the origins of that controversy and how Qatar became the host of this event?
 
##Kieran:
So this will be the most watched World Cup in history, the most expensive World Cup in history, and also the most controversial World Cup in history. 
 
Qatar won the 2022 World Cup in late 2010, becoming the first Middle Eastern country, first Arabic country to ever host the world's biggest sporting event. And I remember it really vividly. I woke up early in the morning Australian time to watch the outcome because Australia was bidding.
 
##Archival tape -- FIFA host:
"In a few minutes from now, we will know which nations will host FIFA's flagship competition in 2018 and in 2022."
 
##Kieran:
And Australia was considered among the favourites. Australia had a lot going for it in its bid.
 
##Archival tape -- FIFA host:
"Shall I recall the candidates? Australia. Japan. Korea. Qatar…"
 
##Kieran:
And particularly when Qatar first announced its intention to bid for the tournament, people dismissed it. This is a tiny city state with really high summer temperatures. You've got to remember the World Cup is traditionally played in the European summer when temperatures in Qatar can reach 40 degrees or more. Didn't have the infrastructure, didn't have the stadiums, didn't have the accommodation. Qatar was not seen as a suitable host for this World Cup, and yet whose name was pulled out of the envelope. 
 
##Archival tape -- FIFA host:
"Qatar!" 
 
##Kieran:
A tournament that's been shrouded in controversy, not only because of the subsequent impact on migrant workers and all of the political and human rights issues arising, but also due to the nature of the bid itself. So almost immediately there were questions about corruption. 
 
It's important to note that Qatar has always denied any impropriety in its bid, and there's never been any findings against the Qatar bid. And, you know, really those allegations and criticism of this tournament have only continued from 2010 onwards.
 
##RUBY:
Well, can we focus in on migrant workers? Can you tell me a bit about the types of conditions that these workers have been working under? And when we first started to learn that things were happening in the construction of these stadiums. 
 
##Kieran:
So Qatar basically had to build the infrastructure for this tournament from scratch. All of the stadiums, the roads, the metro system, the hotels. That's an incredible amount of construction to take place in just over a decade since the bid was awarded in 2010.
 
To build the World Cup, Qatar has brought in hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from around the world, and particularly from South East Asia and Africa are places like Nepal and Bangladesh since they've been in the country for this major project. We've seen allegations of labour rights violations. We've seen allegations of a lack of safety on projects. We've had a number of people die. 
 
The official number in relation to those working on stadiums from the Qatari authorities is only, you know, three or four, according to the Qatar authorities. But a report by *The Guardian* put the number as somewhere upwards of 6,000. This World Cup has been built on the back of migrant workers, many of whom have lost their lives or otherwise suffered significant labour rights violations in relation to this tournament. 
 
##Archival tape -- News Report:
"Since Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup 12 years ago. There have been numerous reports of worker exploitation, substandard living conditions and worker deaths on construction sites."
 
##Kieran:
We've heard reports of long hours working in the heat.
 
##Archival tape -- News Report:
"Across the Gulf, extreme heat is affecting ever more people. Besides causing heart failure, it can also leave workers with life altering illnesses."
 
##Kieran:
A lack of pay.
 
##Archival tape -- Migrant worker:
"Every day they promise us to give up the salary and not yet giving the salary. Yeah, it's about a year now. Not only me, but all my friends. We tried to talk to the company. The company say we take us to the police. Some of us want to go back to our country…"
 
##Kieran:
The accrual of debts relating to the migrant labour.
 
##Archival tape -- Migrant worker:
"We were told that all our expenses would be reimbursed as soon as we arrived. They told us not to worry. This was all a lie." 
 
##Kieran:
Basically ever since this tournament was awarded to Qatar, but particularly in the last five or six years. Barely a month goes by without significant allegations of labour rights violations directly or indirectly relating to the tournament. 
 
##RUBY:
And the reason that these labour violations, one of the main reasons that this has happened, has to do with the kafala system, right? Which is this kind of contract between the employer and the employee, which essentially binds you to your boss if you work for them and you can only work for them and, and you aren't allowed to leave their employment. Can you tell me a bit more about how that works?
 
##Kieran:
So one important aspect of the migrant labour system in Qatar is the kafala system where an employer sponsors the migrant worker and you can't leave the employer or the country without the employer's permission. 
 
In some ways, that's not abnormal. We have not dissimilar sponsored visa situations in Australia, even in places like the United Kingdom. Systems that are not entirely different to this have operated. But the way it operates in practice in Qatar has been to leave workers at the mercy of their sponsor employer and leave them open to labour rights violations. We've had many reports of people unable to leave substandard conditions, unsafe conditions, conditions where they're not being paid for their work because of this system. Now, as a result of significant pressure in relation to the hosting of their World Cup, Qatar in 2019 announced they were going to abolish the system and that's happened on paper. But whether it is yet to take place in practice is contested. And many human rights and labour rights bodies are saying that even if on paper the kafala system has been abolished, conditions for employees, for migrant workers has not materially changed. 
 
##RUBY:
Okay. So it sounds like what you're saying is that the Qatar government has announced that this system is no longer in place. And that's probably to do with the increased scrutiny that they're getting as a result of the World Cup. But it's unclear or it seems unlikely actually, that really things have changed for workers.
 
##Kieran:
I think it's important to be careful in the criticism here. Certainly things have changed for the better on paper and probably in practice as a result of the World Cup. And that's something we should welcome. But it hasn't changed enough. And the key point is that labour rights violations have continued, many of them directly connected to the World Cup. It's estimated that there are 2 million migrant workers in Qatar, almost all of whom have some direct or indirect connection to this tournament. 
 
So, you know, the stadium that hosted the World Cup kick off match between Qatar and Ecuador, you know that was built by workers who had worked 14 hour shifts and faced physical violence, that's been reported, and at least one person is confirmed to have died in the construction of that stadium. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. We have so many people, security guards, drivers, hotel staff, gardeners, labourers who are working in conditions that are of serious concern directly or indirectly connected to the tournament, who wouldn't be in those conditions. But for this tournament and as I said, although there's been some progress, that progress has not gone far enough. And so really the question for all of us, but particularly the teams and the players participating in this tournament and the fans, is what they should be doing about that, how they should be engaging with the fact that this is a tournament quite literally built on the blood, sweat and tears of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.
 
##RUBY:
We’ll be back after this. 
 
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##RUBY:
Kieran, as we speak, the World Cup is underway in Qatar. There are 32 teams coming from all over the world, not to mention the soccer fans who have arrived. And there is this mounting pressure, I think, on the entire football community to respond to what's happened in Qatar in the lead up to this tournament, the human rights abuses that we know have been committed and to the ongoing conditions, terrible conditions for migrant workers in Qatar. So tell me a bit about what we're hearing from these bodies. What’s FIFA saying? What are the football clubs saying? What are the fans saying? 
 
##Kieran:
From FIFA, the governing body we've mainly seen deflection. We've seen attempts to take credit for the progress that has occurred to date and then a desire not to politicise the tournament, messages that we should now stop talking about politics. We've seen the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, went on a quite ludicrous rant in his opening press conference. Why should people in Qatar apologise?
 
##Archival tape -- Gianni Infantino:
"I don't have to defend in any way whatsoever Qatar. They can defend themselves. I'm defending football here and injustice." 
 
##Kieran:
Incredible deflection tactics and moral relativism that hasn't stopped the players and the teams. The Australian team, the Socceroos issued a really strong statement through the players union a few weeks ago, demanding stronger rights for migrant workers and supporting the LGBTQI community. 
 
##Archival tape -- Socceroo player:
"As players, we fully support the rights of the LGBTI+ people. But in Qatar, people are not free to love the person that they choose." 
 
##Kieran:
Engaging directly and indirectly with those affected, speaking to migrant workers, speaking to unions. Really remarkable piece of work from the Socceroos. One of the reasons it was so impactful was that it was focussed on this idea of union solidarity. 
 
##Archival tape -- Socceroo player:
"As PFA members, we understand the power of collective bargaining and the fundamental rights of all workers to form and join a union."
 
##Kieran:
So I think we sometimes forget that athletes are workers like anyone else. And sure there's a big gulf between the Socceroos players who are paid hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars for their work and migrant workers in Qatar who are paid a few dollars an hour, if that. But ultimately all of these people are workers and we saw through the Socceroos a really remarkable act of union worker solidarity, condemning the treatment of migrant workers and minority groups in Qatar and expressing real concern about this tournament going ahead. 
 
##RUBY:
And so Kieran, as these criticisms have mounted and the tournament has gotten underway, what have we heard from Qatar’s government? Are these criticisms having an effect or are the Qatari government really happy to take this on the chin, in exchange for the positive publicity they’re hoping for as hosts of a world cup?
 
##Kieran:
Qatar’s position has really changed in recent months. For a lot of the past few years, the Qatari response has been engaging constructively with the concerns, perhaps not to the extent that human rights groups would like, but there has been some genuine positive change that has given way to a much hardened stance. We've seen a marketing blitz promoting Qatar as a welcoming country. We've seen David Beckham enlisted and paid millions of dollars to be an ambassador for the tournament. That's led to a lot of criticism, particularly given his LGBTQI plus advocacy. Qatar is alleged to have paid fans to turn up and support the tournament. But what's been really noticeable is in recent months, a hardening of Qatar's position. Really, we saw that typified in the last minute reversal around the availability of alcohol. So over a decade since the tournament was awarded, with about 48 hours to go, Qatar reversed its position and removed the sale of alcohol from stadiums. You know, it's not unreasonable. The world is going to Qatar. Why should the world, you know, not respect its religious and cultural traditions in relation to alcohol? I'm not unsympathetic to that view. But what is noticeable and what was really the source of the controversy is this last minute reversal in position, I think signalling a hardening in Qatar's position, saying they actually don't care about what the rest of the world thinks. They're in the driver's seat now. 
 
##RUBY:
It is fascinating Kieran to watch on as an entire sporting community from the top down really grapples with these kinds of questions around what to do when a host country is accused of these kinds of human rights abuses and seeing people decide whether or not they should say something. And by the sounds of it, where things have landed, there's a real mix of responses there’s some sports figures who have been turning up in support of Qatar. There are others like the Socceroos who have been vocal in their criticism. But regardless, they're still attending the World Cup and it's going ahead as planned. So what do you make of where all of this has ended up and whether the criticism that has been said so far, whether that's likely to make any difference?
 
##Kieran:
These are incredibly controversial issues. Sport has always been political, but in some ways 2022 has been this sort of apex moment for the politicisation of sport. We've had the Winter Olympics in Beijing, a World Cup in Qatar. We're having all of these allegations of sports washing by fossil fuel companies, the controversies in Australia and overseas. Ultimately I think all of us have an obligation to stand up to that and say that's not good enough. It's been really heartening to see athletes and teams speak up, but I think all of us can reflect on whether that's enough. And it's been really interesting in the last few days. The European teams, a number of European teams have come together and said that they would wear an armband calling for anti-discrimination. The teams were told by FIFA if they wore the armband, they would face sporting consequences, potentially a yellow card. And they backed down. 
 
What's the point of values if you're not prepared to accept consequences for those values? Now, of course, this is not the player's fault. This is not the team's fault. This is FIFA's fault. And this is the Qatari organising committee's fault. And it's incredibly disappointing that teams in recent days have said they're not prepared to accept sporting penalties for standing up for what's right. 
 
##RUBY:
Yeah. It's really interesting, that idea that sports can't or shouldn't be political, because what we're really talking about here, I mean, it's not politics, we're talking about human rights. We're talking about people dying while they're building the stadium that you're playing in or you're sitting in. 
 
##Kieran:
So we all have Google. We're all human. We all can educate ourselves on the world and the impact we have on it and the way in which tournaments we participate in directly or indirectly impact those around us. So, 2022 World Cup is a black stain on the legacy of FIFA and, you know, really disappointing that the tournament is going ahead.
 
##RUBY:
Kieran, thank you so much for your time.
 
##Kieran:
Thanks very much. 
 
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[Theme Music Starts]
 
##RUBY:
Also in the news today,
 
A report published by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO has provided a grim snapshot into the extreme weather events that are getting worse across the continent.
 
Australia is now 1.47C hotter than it was in 1910 and sea levels are rising at an accelerated rate.  The report shows heavy rainfall events are becoming more intense and the number of short-duration heavy rainfall events is expected to increase in the future.
 
And Independent MP Monique Ryan and the Greens will renew a push to lower the voting age to 16 next year. The member for Kooyong has said she will introduce a private member’s bill, to require 16 and 17-year-olds to vote but without the threat of fines.
 
The move follows the Supreme Court ruling in New Zealand that found the voting age of 18 was discriminatory.
 
I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*, see you tomorrow!
 
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