Human rights groups are to step up their fight against labour abuses in the Gulf states by capitalising on events such as the 2022 World Cup and tie-ups with international firms to pile pressure on local governments.
Wealthy GCC states are looking to build diversify their petrodollar-driven economies by bidding for events such as the Olympics, and inking deals with international brands to attract tourists.
But such deals are turning the spotlight on the migrant worker rights in the region, opening the door for lobby groups to squeeze the Gulf’s international partners in a bid to force change.
“These events will be used [to launch campaigns], said Dr Mustafa Alani of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre. “ Globalisation and engagement with the international community brings with it certain demands and one of the major demands is human, workers and political rights.
“Human rights organisations definitely take advantage of this; they did in China with the Olympics and in Moscow. I don’t think that there is any exception in this region.”
Fifa had a taste of this tactic last week, when it was lobbied by international trade unions objecting to the conditions of “modern slavery” seen by migrant workers in Qatar.
In a letter to soccer’s governing body, the International Trade Union Confederations asked that the gas-rich Gulf state be stripped of its hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup if conditions failed to improve.
The group, which represents 175 million workers worldwide, presented Fifa president Sepp Blatter with a letter outlining its ‘No World Cup in Qatar without Labour Rights’ campaign.
“If the leaders of the Gulf states think they can buy world government votes for major sporting events or cultural events and still continue to exploit workers then they will find the community campaign around the world will simply hot up,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary, ITUC.
“If they want to be part of the global community and the global economy they have to treat people with the dignity and respect of fundamental rights.”
The Gulf plays host to millions of migrants, primarily from Asia, who account for the majority of blue-collar workers in the construction, domestic work, and service industries.
An estimated three million migrate each year, sending back an estimated $175bn in remittances annually, according to Human Rights Watch data.
The six GCC states employ around 15 million guest workers, according to World Bank figures. In Kuwait, there is approximately one migrant domestic worker for every two citizens.
The UAE and Qatar have both announced plans to host international sports events. Qatar in December won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup and has since said it will launch bids for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. The UAE said it plans to bid for the 2024 Olympics Games.
FIFA last week pledged to address labour concerns in Qatar and said the worker conditions would be a future criteria for nations bidding to host the World Cup.
“It was also agreed to add labour related criteria to the bidding process of future FIFA World Cups.:
The Gulf states each need to address their human rights record if they want to be part of the global economy, said Burrow.
“The ball is at the seat of the Qatari authorities and the rest of the Gulf states because if they want to be part of the global economy… they can’t continue a model of exploitation of workers.”
The UAE earlier this year faced criticism over the working conditions of migrant workers on its Saadiyat Island project, the cornerstone of Abu Dhabi’s tourism plans.
The island is set to house branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, but a group of 130 artists said in March they would boycott the $800 Guggenheim project unless conditions for foreign workers building the structure improved.
. The group, which included several prominent artists in the region, said they would refuse to participate in events or sell their works to the museum unless their demands were met.
“Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers,” Walid Raad, a Lebanese-born New York artist said in a statement in March.
“Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes.”