“FIFA will not turn a blind eye. Deaths that have occurred need to be addressed,” said Dr Theo Zwanziger, a member of the FIFA Executive Committee.
“The situation is unacceptable. There needs to be an improvement in the working conditions” of foreign workers employed on World Cup construction sites, Zwanziger said, speaking through an interpreter.
The German high-ranking FIFA official was addressing a European Parliament hearing in Brussels on sports and human rights, which focused on the situation of migrant workers in Qatar.
“The clock is ticking” he warned.
Pressure is mounting on the Qatari authorities to take action after a report by The Guardian newspaper revealed that 185 Nepalese workers had died on World Cup construction sites in 2013 alone because they had been denied food and water.
Evidence is growing of forced labour in the Qatari construction industry responsible for building the stadiums and other infrastructure. Speaking to EurActiv in August last year, Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, called for a boycott of the event.
The revelations forced FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, to request “a detailed report on the improvement of working conditions in Qatar” by 12 February.
The Parliament hearing, which took place one day after, on 13 February, gave EU lawmakers an opportunity to take stock of the commitments made by Qatari authorities, which published a workers’ charter earlier this week in a bid to fend off criticism and improve the conditions of foreign workers.
MEPs and others who attended the Parliament hearing appeared sceptical that the charter would be enforced.
Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director general of the International Labour Organization (ILO), spoke of the “legitimate concerns with labour conditions in Qatar” and the “need for a decisive turnaround” by the Qatari authorities.
He cited “unacceptable practices concerning migrant workers,” including the absence of a minimum wage, delays in salary payments, human rights violations and intimidation of workers who dared to complain.
“Workers should be able to have a voice – a voice without fear of retaliation,” Houngbo said, urging the authorities to allow worker representation on stadium construction sites.
Sharan Burrow, the secretary-general of the international trade union confederation (ITUC), used less diplomatic language to describe the situation of foreign workers in Qatar.
“Qatar is a slave state for a million of migrant workers,” she said, claiming that some were often beaten and abused.
“FIFA must rerun the vote” on the 2022 World Cup attribution, Burrow stressed, warning that if nothing was done “more than 4,000 workers will have died before a ball is kicked off in 2022”.
FIFA: 'What do you expect from a football organisation?'
Theo Zwanziger, the FIFA official, was not convinced about the benefits of rerunning the 2022 World Cup attribution vote, saying the contract had been signed and that pressure would yield better results.
“What do you expect from a football organisation?” he said in response to questions from the audience. “Qatar deserves respect as a sovereign country,” he said. “It’s the power of persuasion that we want. We want to help them not only criticise them.”
Pressed to clarify what were the minimum requirements expected of Qatar, Zwanziger, replied vaguely: “The minimum requirement is that conditions be improved.”
“We can carry out inspections and check whether the situation is improved,” he developed, urging other organisations such as the ILO to also play their part.
“We are prepared to do what we can but we expect support from others,” Zwanziger said, explaining that FIFA had no competencies when it came to labour rights.
“We will continue to work on this – we will make visits on the spot. But we also expect other organisations within and outside of football to improve this appalling situation and do their own homework.”