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Journalist Reese Erlich discusses his reporting into the abuse of labor in Qatar

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up, world, and welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball. With under the table corrupt deals, resistance to resignation, then self-imposed resignations and reelections, so much that is wrong with our world is being exposed through the example of FIFA and the men’s World Cup. So much so that of course even fewer than normal are paying attention to the fact that the World Cup for women is currently underway. Much of the current controversy revolves around the proposed 2022 World Cup being given to Qatar. To discuss at least one aspect, that of the trauma of labor in preparing Qatar for hosting the World Cup, is veteran journalist and author of Inside Syria, Reese Erlich. Reese has recently published a story for Global Post titled What Qatar’s Migrant Workers Say about Building the 2022 World Cup. Welcome again to The Real News Network, Reese Erlich. REESE ERLICH, FREELANCE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It’s always a pleasure. BALL: So tell us, what is, or what are, the Qatari workers saying about what’s happening there in Qatar? ERLICH: Well, first of all of course they’re big soccer fans, as are people all around the world. They are very concerned about the wages and working conditions going into building the five stadiums for the World Cup, as along with all the other infrastructure. They face searing heat, 120, 130-degree heat and they’re forced to work. They often don’t get paid, or they don’t get paid on time. And many of the other labor laws, even set up by the government of Qatar, are not being observed. BALL: So, now I’ve heard stories about Qatar’s claim that their new stadiums that they’re going to build are going to have state of the art air conditioning, and they’re going to be perfectly suited for the conditions, and prepare audiences by the thousands for comfort watching the games. But I suppose though, particularly in the kafala employment system that you describe, that there is no such conditions or settings prepared for the workers themselves. ERLICH: Certainly not. First of all, we’ll wait and see whether they can really develop that kind of air conditioning for an open-air stadium. And they’ve already moved the World Cup to January when it’s cooler, but that’s going to disrupt the existing soccer schedules all over Europe and elsewhere in the world. So that’s a very–remains a very big question mark. But of course when you’re building a building or an underground light rail system you can’t air condition it. And the workers–there are provisions during the height of summer for knocking off during the middle of the day when it’s hottest. But even now in June that hasn’t kicked in, and workers are working in what I would consider unbearable heat. BALL: You know, please also tell us a little bit about what you wrote in this piece about the migrant workers and the conditions that they face, and why some of them are doing it. You know, a lot of people in this country are familiar with the discussion of immigrants coming here to earn a little bit more money to send back home, and that seems like something, as you’ve written about here, that is a big issue happening in Qatar, as well. ERLICH: Well for sure. People come to not only Qatar but Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and all the Emirates and Saudi Arabia because they can make more money than they can at home. The problem is–and the countries need their labor. The problem is that under the kafala system, which you mentioned, the companies contract with the workers and the workers have basically no rights once they arrive. And they can be easily deported, strikes and unions are illegal. So the workers are happy to be making more money than they would at home, but they want decent working conditions. They want payment on time. They want to retain their own passports. The companies still keep the passports even though that’s illegal. So there’s a whole slough of issues that the Qatar government doesn’t want to talk about or doesn’t want to admit are still problems. And the real sign of that was just a week before I arrived in Qatar the government had arrested a BBC film crew and a radio TV-ARD crew from Germany for filming in the labor camps, where the conditions–where the workers live, and where the conditions are quite bad. BALL: You talk a little bit about the workers having no real redress or recourse for redress their issues, that it’s illegal for them to protest, they have nowhere to really make their claims, or make their concerns heard. But you do mention this human rights committee. Tell us a little bit about what that committee is set up to do, and what in fact is happening with it. ERLICH: Well, there is also a labor court, or labor boards that the workers can bring their complaints to. And supposedly they can get their grievances resolved there. But I talked to some workers who have been waiting for five months with no money, with no pay coming in, and no word from the labor board. So that remains a question as to how effective it is. The Human Rights Commission is a relatively new body in Qatar that’s supposed to investigate complaints of some of the things that I’ve been raising. But again it remains to be seen whether it’s going to be effective, given it’s a government body and the general attitude of the government officials I spoke with was why are these guys complaining, they’ve got a job. They knew that, what they were getting into when they came here, and our system is working well with a few exceptions. BALL: Now I’ve seen a few stories that have talked about that Qatar and also Russia might lose their bids for the World Cup. So what then happens to these workers then? What, if there is not going to, if it is decided there will be no World Cup in Qatar in 2022, it seems that only things could be worse, be made worse for these workers. Are there provisions being made for that decision, should it come down that way? ERLICH: Not to my knowledge. The Qatar government would be really in bad shape for all kinds of reasons if the 2022 Cup decision is rescinded. That’s still in the area of maybe. Depends of course if more scandals come out, if it’s shown that Qatar or others engaged in bribery or other activity that was illegal in order to get the rights for the 2022 Cup. As far as the worker–like I said, the workers are big soccer fans. And they would, are glad to have the jobs. And if the 2022 Cup is rescinded, they’re–a lot of them are going to be without jobs, they’re going to end up going home. There are some projects like the light rail system, that’s basically a metro system for Doha, will undoubtedly continue. But the building of the stadia, stadiums and other direct World Cup infrastructure, I can’t imagine that they’ll be able to continue with that without having the World Cup. BALL: So you’ve not uncovered any plans to invest in refurbishing housing for working people and poor people, that they could be put to employment [inaud.] the World Cup? ERLICH: There is a lot that could be done, but why doesn’t the U.S. government invest in housing for poor people and homeless and foreign workers and others? Same reasons in Qatar, which is the people in power don’t care a lot about those down at the bottom. They’ll build luxury condos for themselves, and not else. Now again, to be fair, Qatar has constructed some new housing for workers. The BBC film crew that was arrested was taken, along with others, were taken on a guided tour of the new housing. And it is better than the ramshackle houses, shacks, that people live in now. But the large majority of these contract workers live in pretty bad housing. There’s no normal city services, there’s generators, not electric lines, there’s big tanks that come to suck out the latrines, there’s no piped sewage or piped running water. Fires are a frequent problem. It’s pretty, pretty bad conditions. BALL: So Reese Erlich, just very quickly to wrap up, I know you do a lot of work covering the Middle East region. Is there anything we can learn about the context of that, of the goings-on in that region of the world through this particular example of Qatar and the World Cup? ERLICH: The whole labor system in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, et cetera, is based on the same kind of kafala contract law, and labor system. And it’s pretty outrageous that these workers continue to be exploited in all of the countries of that region. That’s the lesson to be drawn. It’s not just Qatar. There’s a lot of attention because of the World Cup, but I’ve done stories from Dubai and elsewhere where the conditions are just as bad or worse. BALL: Well, Reese Erlich, thank you very much for joining us for this segment here at The Real News Network. We appreciate your time. ERLICH: Thank you for having me. BALL: And thank you for checking us out here at The Real News Network. And continue to keep it locked here at The Real News Network. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball. Peace if you’re willing to fight for it, as Fred Hampton used to say. We’ll catch you in the whirlwind, everybody.


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Reese Erlich is a best-selling book author and freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Dallas Morning News, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio and National Public Radio. He has won numerous journalism awards, including the prestigious Peabody (shared with others). He is the author of several books, and is currently touring across the country promoting his most recent one called: Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire, published in September 2010. Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting from