We live in an age in which public relations professionals fight a never ceasing battle to “spin” the 24 hour news cycle in favour of their clients.
Advertising agencies, (on whom newspapers and, for that matter, free at point of use email and social media services largely depend) are the biggest practitioners, and politicians are the most notorious.
It was once said that academic politics “is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” and many now say this of conventional western politics as the war of ideologies has long since coalesced around a middle ground of floating voters.
However, the stakes in the case of world sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup are anything but low.
The lure of prestige, jobs and money is so large that governments will invest millions and commit to signing draconian laws to protect the rights of the IOC and FIFA, just to secure the right to bid to host their events.
Nothing though could have quite prepared the Qatar 2022 World Cup committee for the furore that erupted among football fans following a British newspaper’s investigation into the desperately poor working conditions and slave-like service contracts endured by Nepali workers constructing foundations for the $45bn Lusail City development, a new city being built from scratch in the desert, which will include the 90,000-seater stadium that will host the 2022 World Cup final.
The conditions: death and injury from unsafe conditions, forced overtime, delayed pay, and a lack of recourse because employers hold passports, plus the fact that workers have often borrowed thousands of dollars to travel there – will be familiar to a large number of Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East.
Although the finding of poor conditions was predictable, the International Trade Union Confederation’s claim, that about 12 labourers will die each week between now and 2022 unless action is taken, came as a shock to Western football fans.
Poor labour conditions and labour rights are (sadly but not surprisingly) often expected of poorer countries, but the Guardian’s report in September sparked mass outrage about the disconnect between the oil-state’s wealth and the conditions of workers.
Social media comments expressed an understandable distaste for a cash rich society promoting itself as a luxury business and travel destination for Westerners, whist building state of the art facilities on the backs of exploited Third World labourers.
Both FIFA and Qatar are taking this criticism seriously, and one can expect many discussions in the years ahead, not least because the 2022 event already faces huge hostility because of the financial ramifications, should it force the most lucrative European football tournaments to truncate their seasons if, as is suggested, the world cup that year is moved to winter.
Of course FIFA, which has been lobbied by - and sometimes worked with - campaigns on working conditions in supply chains in relation to clothes, trainers and footballs since the early 1990s - had no excuse not to be able to anticipate exactly this type of criticism of abuse of workers. But then the BGMEA’s work with the ILO and UNICEF during the same period on child labour did not prevent the negligence and abuses that led to Rana plaza and Tazreen either. One must now expect FIFA to make much play of commitments to corporate responsibility in its discussions with the media and Qatari authorities.
Although like other international sporting bodies, it is plagued by allegations of poor governance and accountability and operates as a law unto itself, FIFA has unlike the IOC assiduously cultivated support in developing countries, so European calls for a boycott of 2022 are likely to fall on deaf ears and be put down to the sour grapes of countries like England whose World cup bids failed.
The biggest winner in all this is Qatar itself, which, by becoming the first Muslim state to hold such a tournament, stands to gain huge kudos.
The Qataris have been smart with some of their money. By investing in the news channel Aljazeera, and guaranteeing editorial freedom to the original staff from the BBC who had tried and failed to set up an Arabic BBC station in 1990s Saudi
Arabia, the tiny emirate gained far more “soft power” than any amount of political broking or prestigious western holdings would have bought.
This was further consolidated when, for a record breaking amount of money, the Qatar foundation purchased the right to display its logo alongside UNICEF on the shirts of Barcelona FC in 2010. For such a profitable fan-owned club which had resisted commercial displays on its shirts for over 100 years, this was a sad indication of how money has come to dominate sport. Indeed, the worst has come to pass, as latterly, FCB shirts and branding have become indelibly linked with Qatar Airways.
I do not doubt that Qatar 2022 will skilfully make use of such associations to deflect criticisms of their host status. But one can still hope that as a nation highly aware of its image, the glare of the global media spotlight will at least make this and other oil rich states sit up and take note of the urgent need to improve labour rights and working conditions in their midst.