Unions connect soccer players with migrant workers in Qatar

GENEVA (AP) — Soccer players have talked with migrant workers in Qatar to learn more about their conditions while building stadiums and other projects for the 2022 World Cup.

The direct conversations were revealed at the launch on Thursday in Brussels of a three-year cooperation between the global players’ union FIFPRO and the Building and Woodworkers’ International which represents construction workers.

The BWI also published its latest report on Qatar’s efforts to modernize labor laws that have been severely criticized since the tiny emirate’s massive World Cup hosting project was picked by soccer body FIFA in 2010.

Players want to connect directly with migrant workers to help ensure change in Qatar continues beyond the World Cup final in December next year.

“We will continue to engage and to learn more,” said Alex Wilkinson, president of the Australian soccer players’ union who represented his country at the 2014 World Cup. “We know that our rights as players are linked to those rights of the workers in Qatar.”

Amid rising activism by athletes across sports in the past year, soccer players in European national teams campaigned in support of human rights at World Cup qualifying games in March.

Germany, Netherlands and Norway players wore T-shirts in team photos before games that were seen as directing scrutiny on Qatar.

FIFA did not discipline the acts, saying then it “believes in the freedom of speech, and in the power of football as a force for good.”

World Cup qualifiers resume in September and the players’ campaign will only get better, more powerful, and more organized, Finland defender Tim Sparv said on Thursday at the unions’ online news conference.

Players have no say in decisions to award hosting rights for competitions for which they become the public face, he said.

“We are expected to obey any decisions taken by the people in power. I personally don’t think that’s possible anymore,” said Sparv, who captained Finland at Euro 2020 last month.

FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said his members want to see “concrete actions” to keep enforcing Qatar’s laws that included abolishing the kafala system that strictly tied migrant workers to employers.

“We need to make sure (changes) last beyond the tournament,” Baer-Hoffmann said.

FIFA and World Cup organizers in Qatar have long insisted that winning hosting rights for soccer’s biggest event speeded up social change.

BWI deputy president Dietmar Schäfers acknowledged “baby steps” in Qatar’s new labor laws were in fact “huge leaps forward” within the region’s employment culture.

Schäfers compared working with Qatar favorably to the union being denied access to building projects for the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, and in Saudi Arabia where there “isn’t even any willingness to engage with us.”

Recommendations in the latest BWI report on Qatar, called “Dribble or Goal?” include urging FIFA and local organizers to help set up and fund a center for migrant workers.

“It would be a ‘safe place’ for migrants to learn about their rights and to seek legal assistance and advice,” the report stated.

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