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Global Solidarity Works: The Case of Qatar

Ambet Yuson, BWI General Secretary

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically shows that we live on an interdependent planet where no country or person has the luxury of living in isolation. It is a vivid example of an integrated world with consequences for health, for the economy, for workers, and for our communities.

Although this is the worst pandemic in a century- an exceptional situation, the global links it reveals are not exceptional. Nor are the uneven and unfair effects of the globalisation that we know. The integration of the global economy has been and remains a challenge for workers and their trade unions. It has also made global solidarity even more essential to national strategies for trade union strength and growth.

Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) is a Global Union Federation (GUF) representing free trade unions of workers in construction, building materials, wood, forestry, and allied sectors. BWI and other global unions seek to globalise social justice and to mobilise trade union power locally, regionally, and internationally to leverage progress at all levels. This requires the creative use of the tools at our disposal. 

Deploying available global tools is central to the BWI sports campaign. A good example is what has been done in Qatar after it was chosen as the site for the 2022 World Cup. Our approach combined the global visibility of a high-profile event, international labour and other human rights standards, international framework agreements, working with allies, and building on knowledge and experience on the rights and conditions of migrant workers.

Red Card for FIFACampaign

BWI affiliates from all continents in all of our sectors mobilised in the red card for FIFA campaign. The representative character of BWI member organisations and the fact that they exist in so many countries made BWI a special player in efforts to convince FIFA to change its ways.

Another strength of BWI is the BWI Sports Campaign Group chaired by BWI Deputy President Dietmar Schäfers (Vice President of IG BAU of Germany) and composed of representatives of BWI affiliates. Not only was it key to the sports campaign long before Qatar, but, made a critical contribution in determining strategy, evaluating progress, visiting sites and making recommendations to the World Board on Qatar. In other words, it, with the World Board, set the course of the campaign as well as recommending future steps and strategies beyond the initial phase of the work. 

The FIFA process that awarded Russia the World Cup in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 focused attention on FIFA and its rules of the game for site selection. The global attention that had always surrounded football and FIFA shined light on faults, governance, and conflicts.  The campaign was not the end of the road to Qatar. Rather, it was a necessary point of departure.

Global Human Rights and Labour Standards

International standards and related processes, combined with relationships at national and global levels, provided the context for the campaign and enabled progress on work with FIFA and cooperation with the authorities in Qatar.

FIFA would meet with BWI, but our discussions never seemed to go anywhere. That began to change not only because they were under attack and having internal problems, but because, with the adoption of both the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the modification of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to include those principles in 2011, businesses were expected to respect human rights even if governments did not require them to do so.

BWI filed a case under the OECD Guidelines against FIFA with the Swiss National Contact Point (NCP), the national body charged with implementing the Guidelines. In some ways, their first decision, to take the case, was the most important. The NCP did not accept the FIFA argument that they were not a multinational company and were not, therefore, covered by the Guidelines. That helped us get to the table.

In addition, FIFA engaged Professor John Ruggie, the architect of the Guiding Principles, to examine a series of human rights issues and make recommendations to FIFA. Ruggie and his team carried out extensive consultations, including with BWI. His comprehensive report and Recommendations provided a basis for discussions with FIFA and, eventually, helped frame dialogue with the authorities in Qatar. The Human Rights Advisory Board helped develop and review and develop FIFA human rights policies and make many recommendations on their implementation in the course of its existence.

At the ILO, worker delegates to the International Labour Conference had submitted a request under the ILO Constitution for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry on forced labour in Qatar. The complaint was based on the kafala system, where migrant workers were dependent on employers for the right to work, for permission to leave employment and to leave the country. That system led to many abuses, including forced labour. After many discussions and a high-level mission to Qatar, the ILO Governing Body agreed to drop the Commission of Inquiry following the clear commitment of the Government of Qatar to end the kafala system and to respect the fundamental rights at work.

International Framework Agreements

BWI has negotiated many international framework agreements (IFA) with multinational companies. They do not, on their own, solve problems, but they provide for a structured relationship based on agreed principles. They also are a form of international trade union solidarity. In many cases, national unions struggled for generations to be recognised and develop good relations with companies. When MNCs open overseas or establish relations with suppliers or other businesses, IFAs may help extend good industrial relations elsewhere. IFAs can also serve as part of company due diligence under the UN Guiding Principles.

The contents of the agreements vary widely, but they are all grounded in a shared commitment to international labour standards. Many have provisions on occupational health and safety. Most include periodic, joint review, but they also serve as the basis for informal resolution of conflicts. BWI already had global agreements with some of the MNCs performing work in Qatar.

In Qatar, IFAs opened the door for exchanges on the local situation with signatory companies. BESIX (Belgium), We Build (formerly Salini-Impregilio, Italy) had agreements with BWI and worked on World Cup construction. In addition, VINCI (France) signed an international framework agreement with their Qatari joint venture QDVC and BWI.  All three (3) companies with agreements are serious about their due diligence responsibilities and actively participated in joint inspections with BWI and the Supreme Committee (SC) and conducted audits. Standards were applied to all workers, including those working for subcontractors and suppliers. Subcontracted work was limited.  They were also vigilant and strict on standards for accommodations.

BESIX and WE BUILD working on construction of three (3) stadia are required to follow the workers’ welfare standards of the Supreme Committee. The BWI and SC conducted regular joint inspection in their construction sites and labor accommodation. BWI has seen significant progress in in terms of health and safety; high standard of management of labor accommodations; and stringent enforcement of workers welfare including recruitment of migrants. Workers committees were formed and the elected workers representatives are much more active and closed linked with BWI. The IFA was useful in building a better working relations and better understanding between BWI and the company representatives on the site.  The compliance level of companies without IFA were more challenging.  The L&T (India), J&R (Cyprus) and CRCC (China) working of three (3) stadia had more violations at the beginning.  They experience high level of non-payment or delayed wages of sub-contractors, safety violations and low level of recognition of the role fo workers representatives. The regular and focused BWI-SC joint inspections were instrumental in improving their compliance level.

WE BUILD and VINCI applied the same standards to their subsequent non-stadium related infrastructure work like the LRT and the METRO projects, where they were not required to do so.  These companies strictly applied Qatar’s workers welfare standards and requirements that workers not to be burdened with the payment of recruitment fees. But because of their IFA with BWI, these companies had developed workers standards based on the ILO core labor standards including strict health and safety measures; workers representation; and fair recruitment.  Their commitment to the ILO Labor Standards applies anywhere in the world including Qatar.

Engagement

There were two key principles that were present from the beginning with FIFA and with Qatar. The first was that the purpose of the campaign was to be able to work with the migrant workers who build Qatar and respond to their struggle for their rights and to improve their conditions. The second was that the campaign was a means not an end. After many discussions and visits, we agreed that we could do more with workers on the ground and through engaging with decision-makers than being on the outside looking in. 

Some other groups campaigned to reverse the decision to hold the Games in Qatar. BWI did not think that was possible and, in addition, we saw the pending games as an opportunity to make progress in a Gulf country that would never have been otherwise possible. After having spent so many years fighting to be at the table and using all the leverage available to get there, it would have been irresponsible to walk away from the affected construction workers.

Progress

The formal launch of our work with the authority responsible for the World Cup, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), was the negotiation and signature of a memorandum of understanding in 2016, which took effect in 2017. In only four years, we have seen changes that we could not have foreseen when we set out on this journey.

Among the advances have been:

  • On employment rights, the kafala system has been abolished. Workers are free to change jobs without obtaining permission from their employers. They are free to leave the country. Fees to recruitment agencies are not to be paid by workers. Migrant workers control their identity papers.
  • Employers must pay wages at or above a minimum wage that applies equally to all workers. There are no longer different wages depending on what was agreed between the governments of supply countries and Qatar. Workers performing the same work, side-by-side, have the same wages.
  • The government hired and trained 200 labour inspectors.
  • The MADSLA ministry created a Labour Disputes Resolution System to address workers complaints and violations of the labour laws. BWI is helping to file dozens of such cases.
  • Legislation was passed addressing the serious problem of non-payment and late payment of wages. In addition, a Workers Support and Insurance Fund has been established for compensation of affected workers while cases are pending. 
  • Occupational health and safety has improved dramatically in construction, particularly in stadiums under the authority of the Supreme Committee. That progress was accelerated considerably by the work of the Joint Working Group (JWG) of inspectors of the Supreme Committee and BWI. BWI affiliates (from 15 countries and from nearly all Continents) provided people with expertise in occupational health and safety who worked closely with their counterparts. They have inspected all stadiums. Each year, the joint committee produces a joint inspection report, a public document, that speaks of progress, of unresolved problems, and identifies additional risks.
  • Accommodations have improved as have sanitary conditions.
  • Worker Welfare Forums and Workers Welfare Committees were created with elected representatives trained by BWI. They learned about labour laws and about informing workers of their rights and protections and assist them with use of procedures. They also developed knowledge and skills on occupational health and safety.
  • Community organisations that represent migrant workers by nationality have formed a council that works with BWI and has regular meetings with Qatari authorities.

Where do we go from here?

Although considerable progress has been made, there is still much that needs to be accomplished. For example, even though the government has implemented important reforms to deal with the problem of unpaid and delayed wages, there are still workers who suffer from the practices, often illegal, of unscrupulous employers who evade their legal obligations. The system established by the government to cushion the impact on workers of missing wages, the Workers Support and Insurance Fund, has not yet been fully implemented or funded.

There seems to be a consensus that progress made in connection with the Games should be extended to the rest of the construction sector. Migrants built the physical infrastructure in Qatar before the Games, and they will continue to do so long after the last ball is kicked. However, the traditions, trust, experience, and infrastructure of cooperation provided by the Supreme Committee do not yet exist in the rest of the industry, with the exception of companies with IFAs. Important breakthroughs like elected worker representatives only work because the process was facilitated by joint efforts and because they were trained by BWI. That enables them to serve as representatives who are independent of employers and government. If progress associated with the Games is to be extended, that will require political will along with resources, expertise, training, and enforcement.

Some of the multinational companies with which we work in Qatar are concerned that they are losing bids to other contractors that are dodging their responsibilities and/or have sub-contractors that are engaged in unfair competition. They argue that progress for workers, for responsible companies and for the development of the industry depends on a “level-playing-field”. They feel that contractors should compete on the quality and delivery of their work rather than through low bids based on sub-standard treatment and conditions for workers. Many of the MNCs are familiar with standards set by sectoral bargaining in Europe. Sectoral standards beyond minimum wages should be part of discussions of the future.

The industry would also become more sustainable and stable if workers had the opportunity to develop their skills. The transformation of the industry and the integration of new technologies and methods depends on skilled workers. Alternatives to short-term, temporary work for migrant workers should be examined. All might benefit if skilled workers were able to have careers where they stay for several years or more, bring over their families and lead lives more like those of many migrant construction workers outside of the Gulf.

Finally, although tremendous progress has been made, full exercise of the ILOs fundamental rights at work is yet to be achieved, including trade union rights. However, discussions will continue with migrant workers and their representatives, authorities, and employers. BWI, including its affiliated organisations, is willing and ready to accompany such a process to ensure that the industry is stable, that the respect of worker rights is sustainable and that migrant workers can contribute even more significantly to achieving Qatar’s development goals.

Conclusions

This article concentrates on Qatar and the 2022 World Cup. It uses one specific case to tell a larger story. All of the key elements of BWIs strategic plan that emerged from the BWI World Congress in 2017, held in Durban, “organising, negotiating, and influencing”, are found in this one case.

The Qatar example is a small piece of a larger global challenge. Actors in the global market, including companies and investors, are often averse to trade unions. Global rules tend to privilege the interests of the rich and powerful over the rights and well-being of working people. It is in that larger context that global solidarity and action is the critical trade union response

After generations of struggle to achieve union recognition, comprehensive collective bargaining, and government regulation in an important minority of countries, gains are threatened by deregulation, liberalisation, and privatisation. Global policy shifts have added protections for property rights while, in effect, reducing them for human rights. Gaping inequalities and attacks on social protections have undermined social standards but have also weakened democracy, which is under siege in many countries.

The fight for democracy is essential to the mission of the trade union movement. We salute the courageous trade unionists who put their lives on the line in that struggle in such countries as Myanmar, Belarus, Hong Kong and Philippines. They are, at the same time, helping to assure the future of free trade unionism.

To reverse some of the damage to rights and good jobs by protecting national standards and decision-making, global solidarity and action are necessary. One country alone cannot force the market to work for the people instead of the other way around.

Likewise, if we want to address unsustainable debt burdens that condemn some countries to permanent poverty and conflict, we must join together. We need a radical shift in policies and to build or re-build viable and coherent institutions of global governance that serve the world’s people and protect our planet. Trade unionism does not and never can stop at the water’s edge. Our future will be determined by our ability and our capacity to think and act globally. In the next, post-COVID years, the direction of our world will be determined for many decades. That “reset” can only go well if workers and their trade unions participate in re-shaping our world.

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