News Middle East

Tuesday 16 September 2014

World Cup slaves probe run by paid lobbyists from Qatar

Peter Foster Washington

Published 23/11/2013 | 02:00

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Chairman of Al Jazeera Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al Thani with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A top international law firm that was ordered by the Qatari government to conduct an "independent review" into allegations of modern-day slavery at World Cup construction sites is also a paid lobbyist for an arm of Qatar's Al Jazeera.

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DLA Piper has received more than $300,000 (€221m) in lobbying fees from Al Jazeera America, according to filings in the US, raising questions over whether it could conduct a fair assessment into allegations that have cast a pall over preparations for the 2022 World Cup.

The review was instigated in response to claims in 'The Guardian' that Nepalese workers were dying at the rate of one a day as they toiled in extreme heat on World Cup infrastructure projects.

The story caused an international outcry and Sepp Blatter, head of the football world governing body FIFA, said on October 4 that Qatar "needs to intervene" to address concern over its labour practices – forcing Qatar, which contests the allegations, to launch a public relations offensive.

That same day, Ali Ahmed Al Kholeifi, the international affairs director at Qatar's labour ministry, said DLA Piper was undertaking "an independent review of the allegations and (will) provide a report on their veracity to the ministry".

The review was given greater urgency on Monday when an Amnesty International report alleged that migrant workers were still being "treated like cattle", living in squalid conditions and often unpaid for several months.

This week the Qatari foreign ministry again twice cited the DLA Piper "independent review" as proof of its commitment addressing labour concerns, first in responding to the Amnesty report and then to a European Parliament debate on migrant labour in Qatar, which an official said was "premature" while "DLA Piper's investigation was on-going".

Hiring DLA Piper to review the allegations has raised eyebrows in Washington, where earlier this year the firm won a contract to lobby for the newly launched channel, Al Jazeera America.

Al Jazeera became a semi-private entity in 2011 to facilitate its expansion and is designated a "private institution of public utility" that remains close to the Qatar government. Last month, its chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al Thani, accompanied the Emir of Qatar on an official visit to Oman.

CONFLICT

David Weinberg, a senior fellow specialising in Saudi Arabia and Gulf affairs at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies think tank in Washington, said DLA Piper's appointment to the review risked creating a conflict of interest.

"Qatar could have chosen any international law firm to launch this investigation, but instead chose the same firm that has been paid handsomely to lobby for Al Jazeera America," he said.

"This choice risks sullying the Qatar brand and makes them look more interested in a World Cup cover-up than in fighting forced labour."

Earlier this month, Mr Blatter visited Qatar and praised its government's efforts to address concerns over labour practices. "The labour laws will be amended and special attention will be paid also to inspections of workers' accommodation," he said.

Yesterday he called on Europe to shoulder far more responsibility for workers' conditions in Qatar. "The big companies are mostly from Europe and if you are a construction company you are responsible for your workers," he said in Rome. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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