Sport and the left have not always been the most comfortable of bedfellows. Despite many famous left-leaning sports stars over the years, sport remains associated with individual achievement and cut-throat competition.
Yet the major international trade union campaign set to dominate the rest of the 2010s involves arguably the biggest sporting event: the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
Controversy has surrounded the staging of the competition in the dictatorial country ever since labour analysts found last year that an astonishing 4,000 migrant workers could be dead from preventable industrial diseases and accidents by 2022. More than 1,000 workers have already been killed whilst building the infrastructure that will deliver the World Cup.
Added to this sense of uncertainty is a system called “kalafah”, where migrant workers have to have a sponsor – often their employer, who has ultimate power over their visa status.
With FIFA’s congress just two weeks away, pressure has mounted on president Sepp Blatter to, in the words of ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow, “find a back bone” and take the world cup off Qatar. At a press briefing for the international media, professional footballer and former Qatar SC player Abdeslam Ouaddou told of his first-hand experience as a “slave” of the system where you have no rights.
He was quick to say his relatively “privileged position” as a footballer would be used to highlight the plight of domestic workers “living with rats” in Qatar. He said: “These are appalling conditions they have to work in, living with rats in filthy sanitary conditions, 40 to a room. We need the support of sporting people, trade unions and even governments to end kafalah.”
Fellow footballer and former player in Qatar Zahir Belounis, said European countries and companies who trade and invest in the dictatorship had “a lot to answer for.” He added: “This exploitation means the rich few can get richer. Money is everything to these people – the only thing that counts.”
The ultimatum given by the ITUC to Qatar is unequivocal: end kalafah, support workers’ rights or there should be no world cup in the country. Sharan Burrow insisted FIFA held the key to forcing the Qatari dictatorship to change. She said: “Qatar is a slave state. Workers are dying and if FIFA does not act, they share culpability for the thousands of workers trapped in Qatar. They can’t just walk away and leave workers to the mercy of the kalafah system.
“FIFA president Sepp Blatter has finally conceded the decision to award Qatar the World Cup was a mistake. But Qatar’s promises on labour laws have been purely cosmetic and it is time for FIFA to stand up for human rights.”
If the Qatari government does not heed international labour calls, then the next few years will see huge efforts to organise workers against the odds and possibly a boycott campaign, on a scale not seen since the boycott of apartheid South African sport over 40 years ago.