February 21, 2016

POOR | Better FIFA, Better Cornell

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Last Tuesday, Sepp Blatter returned to FIFA headquarters in Zurich to challenge the ruinous end of his 17-year reign as the leader of the world’s most powerful soccer association. After a year of explosive corruption allegations, raids  and resignations, the FIFA ethics committee found Blatter guilty of conflict of interest, exchanging illicit gifts and dereliction of duty. Citing his approval of a $2 million payment to UEFA president Michel Platini, the committee sentenced Blatter to an eight-year suspension from FIFA soccer in December.

Blatter’s suspension is the culmination of many years of alleged corruption, money laundering and bribery within FIFA — international scandals that involved hefty sums of money, national pride and corporate cover-ups. While FIFA’s commercial sponsors, fans and players can appreciate a governing body that mediates internal corruption, FIFA has not yet held itself to the same pinnacle of liability for abuses of power at lower levels of the organization. Since Qatar won the bid for the 2022 World Cup, journalists and human rights activists have called upon FIFA to eliminate exploitation and abuse of the migrant laborers working on the construction of the extravagant World Cup infrastructure — a call that has largely gone unheeded.

Qatar — the richest country per capita in the world — also houses the highest ratio of migrant workers to citizens. Comprising over half of the national population, an estimated 1.4 million migrant workers seek jobs in Qatar. In recent years, the promises of a booming $260 billion construction project to prepare for the World Cup brought many foreign job seekers to Doha. Migrant workers in Qatar generally come from South Asian countries and low-income backgrounds. Human rights reports have indicated a pattern of Gulf companies and contractors engaging in predatory recruiting techniques — involving down payments by migrants for employment, deceptive job descriptions and salary promises and dishonest interest rates on loans for deposits to the company — which result in a form of debt-bondage, through which companies hold control over their migrant employees. In accordance with kafala, the “visa sponsorship” contract, bosses retain migrants’ visa papers, and often require that workers hand over their passports as well.

Migrants express decreased mobility and a threatened sense of freedom — their ability to leave their job diminishes if their bosses maintain control over their visas and passports. Earning paltry compensation, the workers live in tightly packed hostels, where sanitation, health and safety conditions fall below coded standards and access to potable water is erratic. According to Amnesty International, workers are forbidden to form or join trade unions; legal restrictions obstruct worker’s capacity to collectively organize for better conditions. Furthermore, migrant laborers face long and cumbersome trials to seek justice for labor abuse. Legal avenues for rectifying exploitation, debt-bondage, or unpaid wages are precarious, unreliable, expensive, and difficult to access.

Human rights activists additionally decry the high dangers of physical labor in the sweltering heat of Qatar summers — a report from the International Trades Union Confederation shows that an unparalleled rate of laborers have perished in the recent construction boom. In spite of international outcry over the labor conditions for workers preparing the 2022 World Cup, numerous corresponding lawsuits and hundreds of workers’ deaths, FIFA has kept a squeamish distance from the labor abuse allegations. In contrast with the flurry of court proceedings, international press conferences, and multinational raids surrounding and leading up to Sepp Blatter’s suspension, FIFA prosecutors have not undertaken any radical upheavals to undo internal corruption against the migrant workers. The FIFA ethics committee’s priorities seem to rank justice for misused dollars over justice for thousands of exploited migrant laborers working to bring a Qatari World Cup to fruition.

As soccer fans, consumers of the products advertised by World Cup sponsors and as people who (as Judith Butler has said) are “undone” by the exploitation of others’ vulnerability, we, too, are accountable to the fulfillment of labor justice for migrant workers. And while the laborers in Qatar may seem a world away, at Cornell, we know this issue hits close to the heart and home.

In Ithaca, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA) has called upon Cornell Administration to undertake similar action towards mitigating possible labor abuse on the Weill Cornell Medical campus in Qatar. Well aware of the structural insufficiencies that posit migrant laborers at high risk for exploitation, COLA has pressured the university to enlist a third party investigator to inspect the potentiality for exploitation on the Cornell campus in Education City, Qatar — a measure that was supported by the Student Assembly in SA Resolution 16. Nonetheless, as the Sun has previously reported, President Garrett referred to this proposition as “frankly, unrealistic,” and wrote that a wide-scale investigation of labor abuses “threatens to divert resources from areas where we can be most effective” in a response to SA president Juliana Batista.

Too often, corporate, state and collegiate bodies worry about the loss of resources only when they perceive a loss of capital. Cornell administration tells us that our highest accountability is to return on investment, at the possible expense of those who may be crushed in the pursuit of profit. FIFA and Cornell — two elite powers vested with immense privilege and influence — have an obligation to do better, to use our privileged platform to disrupt global chains of exploitation (of which we may be perpetuating) and to ensure workers at all levels of our organizations are guaranteed security, rights, compassion, and humanity.

Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at ksp57@cornell.edu. Triple Jump appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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