World Cup bidder Saudi Arabia accused of abusing migrant workers ahead of FIFA decision

GENEVA (AP) — A global group of trade unions is accusing Saudi Arabia of abusing migrant workers in a complaint filed Wednesday with a UN-backed labor organization, which comes as FIFA prepares to confirm the oil-rich kingdom as host of the 2034 World Cup.

The complaint filed by Building and Wood Workers’ International urged the International Labor Organization to investigate Saudi Arabia for “severe human rights abuses and wage theft,” which it said affected at least 21,000 workers over the past decade.

“The complaint emphasizes the exploitative living and working conditions among the country’s vast migrant workforce — conditions that BWI notes are akin to forced labor,” the global group of trade unions said in a statement.

The BWI cited allegations of illegal recruitment fees demanded, wages and passports withheld, limits on workers leaving jobs, plus physical and sexual violence “particularly against female and domestic workers.”

It alleged violations of ILO conventions on forced labor, freedom of association and collective bargaining. Saudi Arabia is a member of the ILO and ratified the forced labor convention.

The ILO is a tripartite agency uniting governments, employers and workers with a goal to “set labor standards, develop policies and devise programs promoting decent work for all women and men.”

It received a similar complaint a decade ago against 2022 World Cup host Qatar, which also needed massive construction of stadiums and transport projects ahead of the soccer tournament.

Qatar faced little scrutiny of its labor practices, including the kafala system of laws, before being picked by FIFA in 2010 as a World Cup host. Qatar did work with the ILO and overhauled much of its kafala system.

Now, FIFA is under pressure to avoid similar missteps and work with independent experts to use the leverage it has now with Saudi Arabia to avoid a repeat scenario.

Saudi Arabia was all-but confirmed by FIFA last October as the 2034 host but must submit a formal bid in July. It is the only candidate in a contest FIFA member federations will decide in a Dec. 11 vote.

The BWI said its complaint against Saudi Arabia “demands immediate attention from FIFA and the international community.”

FIFA and the Saudi bidding team for the World Cup have declined to comment on human rights questions ahead of a July filing of the official bid book.

FIFA requires World Cup bidders to comply with an independent human rights assessment, and to ensure hosting the tournament “does not involve adverse impacts on internationally recognized human rights, including labor rights.”

Saudi Arabia needs to build up to 10 of the 14 stadiums required to host the 104-game World Cup involving 48 teams. One stadium project features plans for a high-tech 45,000-seat venue atop a cliff near Riyadh.

Hosting the World Cup is part of the sweeping Vision 2030 project backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernize Saudi society and diversify the economy beyond dependence on oil.

The crown prince has built close working ties to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and sees sports and entertainment events as key to his project. It also envisages building a futuristic city called Neom.

Saudi Arabia also is building a ski resort to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in mountains near Neom, and public transport systems and venues in Riyadh for the 2030 World Expo.

Critics of Saudi Arabia say this amounts to “sportswashing” of the kingdom’s reputation and a distraction from its record on human rights and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Geneva-based BWI says it comprises more than 350 trade unions representing 12 million members in 117 countries.

“Saudi Arabia, where trade unions are banned, blatantly disregards international labor standards and fails to compensate migrant workers who have suffered abuses for over a decade,” the BWI general secretary Ambet Yuson said in a statement.

The complaint to the ILO was made during its annual conference in Geneva, under the leadership of director general Gilbert Houngbo, who was prime minister of Togo from 2008-12.

The BWI filing was backed by human rights groups Amnesty International, Equidem, FairSquare and Human Rights Watch.

“It is clear that the Saudi labor system gives employers excessive control over workers to carry out egregious abuses with impunity,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

She said the BWI filing was “a flashing alarm for businesses and organizations like FIFA planning massive events and operations in Saudi Arabia.”


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