Journey from opposition to shared commitment

Last year, BWI held a successful two-day Global Sports Conference on labour rights and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. 

The event was participated by trade union leaders, non-government organisations (NGOs), migrant community leaders and associations, as well as various government officials from different parts of the world. 

True to the expectations of many, the conference showcased exciting sessions that discussed various issues and concerns on migrant workers’ rights, occupational health and safety, institutional partnerships among unions, FIFA and Qatari government officials, and reforms leading to the 2022 World Cup and beyond.   

One of these was a session that went over BWI’s cooperation with the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC) on labour rights in Qatar in the context of the World Cup 2020.  

BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson led the discussion which highlighted the global union’s journey from a place of opposition to a place of shared commitment in pushing for migrant workers’ rights in Qatar. 

The session was moderated by SHIFT Co-founder and Vice President Rachel Davis. 

Full transcript below.


BWI Workers Voices Webinar Series 5: 

Labour Rights and The Legacy of FIFA World Cup 2022

Minutes between 39-61 at the first day of the Sports Conference (23 November) are transcribed as follows:

Rachel Davis (Vice-President and Co-Founder, SHIFT): Thank you to BWI for the invitation to be with you all. I am really pleased to be here with you. I have one piece of bad news to deliver which is that Hassan Al Thawadi unfortunately cannot be with us today. He sends his deepest regrets. He is very unwell and so of course we send him our best wishes. But Ambet and I are very happy for still have a conversation because we have had the pleasure of working together closely over the last four years. I am also the chair of the Independent Human Rights Advisory Board to FIFA. And, in that capacity we’ve worked side by side with Ambet including on visits to Doha and of course, with the wonderful Jin Sook as well who we indeed miss very much in this work together. So, we will not pretend to have the same conversation that we could have had with Hassan. It is not possible when one partner is missing but we’ll hear Ambet’s reflections on the partnership and he has threatened to ask me a couple of questions, as well. But before we dive in, we’ll hear and see a short video produced jointly by BWI and the Supreme Committee about the partnership.

Great! So, I think, we can dive in. 

Ambet, take us back very briefly to the beginning of this story. I think, many people on the line today know it but it’s still an extraordinary one. In 2015, BWI is campaigning, you had your Red Card for FIFA Campaign publicly attacking Qatar. And in 2016, you are signing an agreement with Hassan, with the Supreme Committee. How do you move from a place so of opposition to a place of shared commitment? What were the couple of the most important factors in that?

Ambet Yuson (General Secretary, Building and Wood Workers’ International): Thank you, Rachel. Good afternoon, or good evening in Australia. Hello to everyone, welcome to BWI Global Conference. Let me also send my best wishes to Hassan. I hope that you feel better soon. Rachel, actually, BWI was ready for a long battle. We printed, distributed thousands of Red Card for FIFA but we never expect that our campaign will end up with this cooperation so soon. BWI organized international trade union delegations to Qatar. We met with Hassan five up to seven times. I tell you, it was very intense, a lot of debates but respectful and open dialogue. We disagree on many things at the beginning. But we continue to dialogue. Of course, here, I’d like to recognize Hassan for keeping his commitment to this dialogue until both of us found a common ground: health and safety. We may not agree on several issues, but we decided to have a memorandum of understanding and start working together on improving the health and safety condition of the migrant workers through joint inspection and trading of workers’ representatives. The BWI Supreme Committee Joint Inspection is using a more constructive approach. We involve the contractors, the subcontractors, the workers in concrete problem solving on the construction site and the accommodation sites. The experiences of the BWI union inspectors from around the world combine with an expertise of the Supreme Committee Team. It was very useful in providing practical solutions. The training of workers’ representatives has empowered the workers to actively participate in improving the health and safety conditions of workers. 

Here, Rachel, I would like to recognize the role of Jin Sook. In fostering a cooperative approach between the BWI team and the SC team. You know, most of us engaging this team, mostly were men. But Jin Sook’s charm and dedication and passion, she was able to create an environment of cooperation and a sense of common mission. For this, I’d like to thank Jin Sook. 

One important element in this agreement is the respect, the confidence and the transparency that have been established through this dialogue. It took us a long time to convince SC. It is not easy. It took us some time. But once we agreed and signed the MoU, everything was easy. And they want to recognize Hassan for his commitment in ensuring the implementation of the MoU. In fact, our partnership has gone beyond our agreement. Before we focused on health and safety, now we are focusing on broader issues of workers’ welfare. 

Rachel, can I also ask you a question? I remember, I’ve met you for the first time in Doha when you and John Ruggie presented the human rights report for FIFA. It was 2016, it was the height of the campaign. How do you assess the climate of the time? The situation if dialogue, a cooperation was possible at that time? 

Rachel Davis: Thanks Ambet. Yes, I remember that well. I remember that trip really well. Because three significant things happened. I met you, and you lobbied me and I met Hassan and he lobbied me and then, I got direct insight into the working conditions in labor camps that were not connected to the FIFA World Cup so camps that were not overseen by the Supreme Committee. And, I’m very glad that I got that insight because I think it helps me in work of the board to appreciate this partnership and what you and the Supreme Committee have achieved together through it even more for workers on World Cup’s sites. What I saw in 2016 was different organizations trying to come together around a shared focus but not yet finding a way to do so. That shared focus should be and now is better outcomes for workers, but it took a while to build that trust and the relationships that now exist. And, I think that the BWI and SC partnership has really formed the core of that. And, you now see organizations whose mandate it is to think about and act for decent working conditions, like BWI, like ILO. Together with organizations you have made that commitment, like the Supreme Committee and also like FIFA in its joint sustainability strategy which reflects its own human rights responsibilities. So, it has come a long way since 2016. 

I have another question for you. And the other thing is we’ve come a very long way since 2016 is Qatari Labour Law. We’ll hear more about that tomorrow of course as the different components of the Kafala system have gradually been formally abolished but there is still some very significant restrictions, of course on trade union rights. And, how have you managed to negotiate this issue during your partnership with the SC? And, what has been the role of the worker welfare forums which we’ve already, you know, heard about and will hear more about and which Jin Sook’s work was so central to. Help us understand that issue. 

Ambet Yuson: Yes, again, you know, we debated a lot. We discussed about trade unions in Qatar. We agreed to continue that discussion but, in the meantime, we said okay can we agree first on workers’ representation at least workers are able to have representative and they are able to participate in ensuring health and safety condition on the ground. So, with our experience with the Workers’ Welfare Forum with a Supreme Committee and as well as with a QDVC Vinci were positive so far. I have witnessed the election of workers’ representatives. And I can see the excitement and the ownership of the workers on the process. I myself have conducted training of workers’ representative. It was an empowering experience for them. I have observed their meetings, it was amazing to see them talk about their problems from food issues to wage increases. Workers are not afraid to ask questions about their rights. But the challenge is how this can be replicated throughout the country and make it really work. I remember that the SC started the formation of the workers’ welfare forum and the approach was a top-down approach by appointing workers’ representative. But together we analyzed, we assessed and together we tried again. But this time, it’s a bottom-up approach where workers elect its own representative and we have seen the dynamism, the excitement, the ownership of the workers in the formation of these workers’ welfare forum. The recognition of trade unions in Qatar is the last missing piece to complete the labour reform in Qatar. WWF, the Workers’ Welfare Forum is work in progress. I think we had built WWF as a mechanism for workers’ voices. This is a good start. However, the challenge is how we can continue what we started in empowering the migrants. I think it’s about empowering the migrants. Training workers’ representative, awareness building about the new labour reform, legislation, health and safety training, election of workers’ representative. These are important elements of ensuring workers’ voices and meaningful workers’ representation. I hope to see this work continue, not the top-down approach but by providing a space for workers’ empowerment and workers’ participation.

Now, it’s your turn Rachel to give your point of view because I remember we visited Qatar I guess, in 2018 during the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board Meeting. You visited the site and I believe, yes, you joined one of the WWF meetings. What’s your observation in that meeting?

Rachel Davis: That’s right. I’m glad you asked me about that Ambet, because I remember how clear Hassan was when we were talking about organizing the agenda for the visit that he really wanted this to be part of what the board saw. And also, to talk frankly about the journey that trajectory as you said that the forums have been on and going from a place where they were dealing with very important daily concerns, like the quality of the food in the canteen but actually, starting now to talk about in 2018 already, to talk about the issues like wages, like repayment of fees, and voice, and representation. And, you could see what could be possible. And, I remember we joined the joint inspection between BWI and the SC. And, part of that forum session was that Jin Sook of course was leading and building capacity of that discussion and dialogue. And, I remember watching her in action and I’ll always carry that memory of her with me. And, seeing the hard work that the workers themselves, representatives had put in that the management and supreme committee side were putting in as well to try to support this and make this work with Jin Sook and BWI’s efforts. And, I think there was no guarantee that these forums would have been meaningful or would have been effective. As you say, it’s really had to be a bottom-up process. And we said in our public reporting as the advisory board that over the last four years we’ve seen the Supreme Committee’s approach driven more and more by this very worker-centric perspective. A perspective focused on is this actually doing something better or good for workers? If it is not, what is wrong with it, how can we fix it? And, I think that kind of change in approach comes at a very human level. It is not just a technical, technocratic, “we fix something here, we fix something there” approach. It is really human. And, that comes from you know, working with organizations like yourself and understanding that if we have a shared vision of better outcomes for people, how you translate that into behavior and practices in people’s day to day lives is really slow, hard work but it’s how we’ll get there. 

I want to come back to you for a final question. And, I recognize the time and we need to hear also from a number of the colleagues who have been leading the very practical collaboration in Qatar, next. But, Ambet, when we think about legacy and when we think about 2022 which is now really close and after 2022, what does legacy look like to you? And, I know this will come very naturally to you but legacy beyond more than forms on paper as important as those are, we all recognize that they are very important. But what should look different in practice? What should feel different in practice for migrant workers in Qatar after 2022? What’s your vision of legacy that you would like to share?

Ambet Yuson: Thank you, Rachel. The Qatar government has passed significant labour laws that will positively impact the migrant workers including the dismantling the Kafala system. However, how is this different from other Gulf countries who are claiming that they’ve also done the same and recently the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced its own labour reforms. For me, it’s clear that the labour reform in Qatar is the reform that I can believe. That’s clear. But I also believe that the real legacy of the World Cup is if this labour reforms are implemented and felt on the ground by the migrant workers. Full respect of fundamental rights of migrants in Qatar. I understand that the challenge of implementation, it takes time, capacity, political will but what is important is a process, that there is progress. More important is the participation of workers. We believe that involving the migrant workers through institutional and consultative partnership with the workers’ committees and the community leaders’ forum is an important component of implementing this inform. It is only through regular consultation with the migrant workers that the government will be able to assess the gaps and successes in implementing these reforms. So we hope that these reforms will continue, particularly implementing even after the World Cup. But it is important before the World Cup, I think it is important that we can expedite, and we can make a difference if we make a significant flip before the World Cup happens.

Rachel Davis: Great! So that’s good encouragement to do more in the short term, to do more in the long term. And we will be also sharing that view with FIFA as the board when you wear that hat Ambet, not your BWI hat. I wanted to just highlight for everybody who has joined today. I’m sure many people would have liked to hear also Hassan’s perspective on this. That there is an excellent podcast that Ambet and Hassan did together which the Centre of Sports and Human Rights has published. You can find it very easily, I’m sure that organizers of today’s event can share it. And if you want to hear what this relationship is like in reality, I encourage you to listen to it. It’s a bit longer than this conversation, it’s an hour and a half, so you have to make some time but it’s worth listening to because you will get a sense of the relationship between the two people, leading each organization, Ambet and Hassan. I think that’s been really fundamental to this relationship, it has been people building relationships on each side the whole way through and I think we really see that now for years on certainly from my observations from the board. That is very clear. So, thank you Ambet and we are very sorry again not to have Hassan but we look forward to hearing more from Mahmud and the rest of his team and the rest of this discussion.

Ambet Yuson: Thank you, Rachel.