Sunday 18 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: 62 dead workers per match but where are the calls for boycott?

A protest on behalf of migrant workers in Qatar near the FIFA Congress in Zurich
A protest on behalf of migrant workers in Qatar near the FIFA Congress in Zurich

Eamonn Sweeney: Hold the back page

Here's why FIFA corruption really matters. Wednesday's arrest of nine of the organisation's leading officials and four sports management executives who the US Department of Justice claim have received over $150m in bribes over the past 24 years is only the beginning.

The Swiss authorities, for example, will be conducting their own investigation and wish to speak to 10 members of FIFA's Executive Committee concerning the 2010 vote which awarded the 2018 World Cup finals to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. They will be questioned about "criminal mismanagement and electronic money laundering."

Russia's claim that all their computers involved in that bid have been destroyed and Vladimir Putin's attack on Wednesday's arrests as "another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states . . . a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of FIFA which is a great violation of the principles of international organisations," probably tell us all we need to know about how the Russians did business five years ago.

As for the Qatar World Cup, bribery has always seemed the most plausible explanation for its selection as the 2022 venue. Not only did FIFA's officials ignore the reservations of the organisation's Technical Committee, they awarded the finals to Qatar in the knowledge that doing so would require the disruption of the entire world football season in order that they could be played in winter for the first time in its history.

The problem is that in this case skulduggery has cost lives. More than 1,400 migrant building workers from Nepal and India have already died since Qatar was awarded the tournament. The International Trade Union Confederation have estimated that the total will rise to at least 4,000 by the time the tournament kicks off. That's around 62 dead workers per match.

Yet the international football community has shown remarkable sang-froid in the face of this abominable violation of human rights. The English FA was calling last week for a UEFA boycott of the 2018 World Cup should Sepp Blatter be re-elected, and major sponsors were making unhappy noises about the corrupt state of the organisation. But the deaths of the migrant workers didn't prompt any talk of boycotts or the withdrawal of sponsorship. FIFA are in a strong position vis-a-vis the Qataris and could have insisted on improvement in the miserable conditions of the migrant workers there.

Instead they've done little or nothing and the death toll has continued to mount.

The exploitation of building workers in Qatar is underpinned by a system known as Kafala which means employees cannot leave the country without their employer's permission. In practice this means that these workers are, as Human Rights Watch has said, "forced labour." A poor man from Nepal who realises that he is not physically able for these long hours of building work in the hot sun has no choice but to endure it. He may even know it will kill him but there is nothing he can do. Kafala means there is no onus on the Qataris to improve the conditions of workers who are effectively prisoners in the country.

They even denied Nepalese workers the opportunity to return home for family funerals after the recent earthquake. This is the country to which FIFA awarded the World Cup finals.

Here's why it's your business.

Re-elected FIFA President Sepp Blatter gestures during news conference after an extraordinary Executive Committee meeting in Zurich, Switzerland
Re-elected FIFA President Sepp Blatter gestures during news conference after an extraordinary Executive Committee meeting in Zurich, Switzerland

We've been doing a lot of backslapping in this country over the past week about the fact that we're Top of the Equality Pops right now. Well, what's happening in Qatar is also an equality issue because the system there and the condoning of it abroad rests on the presumption that the Indian and Nepalese worker is a lesser form of human being than the rest of us.

Think of the lives these men have in Qatar. Irish human rights lawyer Orna Joyce described their living conditions as "absolutely horrific". She added: "You could have had anything up to 15-20 people living in a tiny room, they're expected to cook in that room as well. There have been reports of open sewers right outside the dormitory place they're living in."

They live in those places, they work long hours doing back-breaking work in hideously oppressive conditions for subsistence wages and in the end some of them die. Others have their health ruined by their work. Sometimes companies don't pay them full wages and refuse to let them leave the country until they sign a document falsely stating they have been paid in full. There have also been cases of workers forced to stay on for two years longer than the time they signed on for because they weren't allowed home.

You may think that there's not much we can do about the situation here in Ireland. But the marriage equality referendum showed us that a small country can make a huge international impact by doing the right thing. And when that country is one which was once itself kept afloat by the remittances sent home by migrant workers, you might imagine this would be a cause it could take to its collective heart.

Sadly, politicians and businessmen are more likely to defend Kafala than criticise it. As long as big companies are making a few quid in Qatar, who cares about a couple of thousand biting the dust?

I've even heard the argument made that the exploited migrant workers don't have the same kind of human feelings as us as they're a kind of lesser breed.

Well, a couple of hundred yards away from where I'm writing is a mass grave containing the bodies of 15,000 people who died during the Famine, largely because they too were seen as a kind of lesser breed whose suffering was not worth bothering about.

Perhaps John Delaney and the FAI can set the ball rolling by acting on the letter they received last week from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions asking them to raise this issue at FIFA level?

John Delaney, Chief Executive of the FAI
John Delaney, Chief Executive of the FAI


A novel way to  redefine the truth

You may recall the extraordinarily gushing praise which attended the publication of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's autobiography a couple of years ago. The Guardian described it as the most compelling footballer's autobiography ever, which pretty much fitted in with the general consensus. Zlatan, it was agreed, had revealed himself as witty, intelligent, fearlessly honest and an all-round fascinating personality. His endless stream of quotable quips revealed someone who was intellectually a cut above the average footballer.

Well, last week David Lagercrantz, ghost writer of I Am Zlatan, revealed just why Ibrahimovic's quotes were so memorable: "I decided to write it as a novel. I was not quoting him. I don't think I have any real quotes from him. I tried to get an illusion of him. I tried to find the literary Ibrahimovic." In other words he made it up. When he presented the book to Ibrahimovic, the striker's comment was, understandably enough, "What the fuck is this? I never said any of this."

Lagercrantz took this course, he explained, because he came from a "highbrow" family and found all other football books boring. Which is a bit rich coming from a man who's currently writing a sequel to Stieg Larsson's Girl thrillers, which make the average ghosted sporting autobiography look like Proust.

But here's the rub. Having told his audience at an English literary festival that he'd made up all the Ibrahimovic quotes everyone had salivated over, Lagercrantz then said that when he told the Paris St Germain striker he'd read David Beckham's autobiography, the response was, "who the fuck is David Beckham?" The press response was to make a big deal out of this quote. The story was everywhere. After all, it's not like Lagercrantz would have invented it or anything.

Ah well. "The nominal definition of truth, that it is the correspondence of cognition with its object, is assumed as granted; the question asked is as to what is the general and sure criterion of the truth of any and every cognition," as Robbie Keane once said to me.

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