It is estimated that over 4,000 workers could die before a ball is kicked in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) 2022 soccer World Cup tournament unless Qatar introduces reforms and meets international labour laws, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, reported on 13 February to the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights on efforts to improve working conditions in the country.

Trade unions, human rights groups and the International Labour Organisation also gave evidence to Parliamentarians about the need for workers in Qatar to have proper workplace representation and to have a voice without fear of retaliation.

In Qatar, a bonded labour system known as Kafala is practised. According to the ITUC, this is a visa sponsorship system that ties workers to their employers, as they cannot leave the country or move to another employer without permission.

Qatari law also denies migrant workers the right to form or join trade unions, the ITUC said.

The subcommittee heard promises from the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy that contractors building World Cup stadiums would be held to high standards on the welfare of migrant workers.

At FIFA’s request, the Qatar 2022 committee produced a 50-page document that outlined standards on payment of migrant workers’ wages, accommodation and welfare. It also included promises to introduce an inspection regime.

However, the proposals fall short of reforming the Kafala system, which also forbids workers from leaving the country without their employer’s permission.

Speaking at the hearing, Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, said, “Qatar is a slave state for 1.4 million migrant workers. It doesn’t have to be that way. Qatar chooses to build its modern nation with the labour of migrant workers and deliberately chooses to maintain a system that treats these workers as less than human.”

The ITUC called for the government of Qatar to make a number of reforms including ending the Kafala system and introducing laws to allow freedom of association and collective bargaining so workers have a voice.

For its part, FIFA said the application of international norms of behaviour was one of its principles, expected from all the countries which host its events. It added that it firmly believed in the power that the FIFA World Cup can have in triggering positive social change in Qatar, including improving the labour rights and conditions of migrant workers.

The news comes amid reports that over 400 Nepalese migrant workers have died on Qatari construction sites since the country won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

Nepalese workers are said to comprise 20% of Qatar's migrant workforce, with others drafted in from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, among other countries.

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