Sunday 19 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Are we civilised or are we savages?

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Eamonn Sweeney

In the month of July alone 32 young Nepalese building workers died in Qatar where immigrant labourers suffer fatal heart attacks after working in temperatures of up to 50 degrees centigrade without access to drinking water, have had their wages withheld and their passports confiscated, cannot change jobs or leave the country without the permission of their employers, live 12 to a small room and have fled to embassies in an effort to escape. From 2010 to 2012, over 700 Indian workers died on Qatari building sites.

Nepal's ambassador to Qatar Maya Kurami Sharma has called the country "an open jail" for workers from her country. Aidan McQuade, of Anti-Slavery International which was founded in 1839, says, "These working conditions and the astonishing amount of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labour to the slavery of old where human beings are treated as objects."

Now here's where we come in. The Qatari government is currently building the stadiums, hotels and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that this will lead to an extra 4,000 deaths.

Yet discussion of the unsuitability of a Qatar World Cup has focused almost exclusively on the effect the extreme heat might have on the players taking part when, in the words of Umesh Upadhyaya, general secretary of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, "They are ignoring the hardships, blood and sweat of thousands of migrant workers, who will be building the World Cup stadiums in shifts that can last eight times the length of a football match."

Should the 2022 World Cup go ahead, it will be built on the bones of the dead. And that will mark a low point in the history of sport, a point where a major sporting body has not just ignored evil but actively colluded with it.

FIFA representatives have pretended to be shocked and appalled since The Guardian broke this story. But the truth is that this is not news to them, nor to anyone who knows anything about Qatar. I wrote about the same issue last year. And I suspect that what FIFA want is some kind of meaningless assurance from the Qataris which they can wave in front of the world until the current furore dies down.

The standard hypocritical get-out clause is that by focusing attention on Qatar the tournament might actually improve conditions there. The same argument used to be made in favour of touring Apartheid South Africa. It was self-serving nonsense then and it's self-serving nonsense now. The Qataris know FIFA knew the score when they gave them the tournament. Losing the hosting of the finals is the one thing which might shock them out of their indifference and even that's doubtful.

If we allow this tournament to go ahead and watch it on our TV screens, we become the moral equivalent of the southern belle on the verandah wondering what those screams are coming from the plantation, or the German villager turning a blind eye as the Jews are brought into the local forest. It boils down to this: Are we civilised human beings or are we savages?

If it's the former, then the world's football fans should get in touch with their national governing bodies and insist they lobby FIFA for the 2022 World Cup to be relocated. We can write to the FAI and tell them we'll be boycotting qualifying matches until this decision is made. If it happened in enough countries then FIFA would be quick enough to act. And football fans could be responsible for the saving of 4,000 lives. Wouldn't that be something?

Ireland should lead the way on this because there was a time our poor young men travelled away from home and were cruelly exploited on the grounds that they had no choice and were sub-humans anyway. One 19th century industrialist observed that you were better off with an Irishman than a slave because if the slave died you'd lost a valuable piece of property whereas if an Irishman died you could always get another one. The Qatari attitude to their workers seems to be the same.

It's time footballers started speaking up on this. Being a professional sportsman doesn't absolve you from concern for your fellow human beings.

Sunday Independent

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