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UN agency seeks FIFA deal for World Cup labour rights role

International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General Gilbert Houngbo says the body wants a bigger role scrutinising FIFA World Cup hosts
— Doha (AFP)

After fierce criticism of the Qatar World Cup, the head of the UN labour agency on Sunday pressed FIFA's president for a greater role scrutinizing future World Cup hosts.

International Labour Organisation director general Gilbert Houngbo told AFP before meeting with Gianni Infantino that Qatar has been a victim of "double standards" and has made significant progress but more needs to be done for its migrant labourers.

The ILO is seeking a role carrying out "due diligence" on future candidate countries, Houngbo said in an interview.

FIFA has faced increased pressure after years of criticism of labour rights in Qatar, ranging from controversy over deaths on mega construction projects to unpaid salaries and working in the Gulf state's fierce summer heat.

Houngbo said he believes "FIFA is very determined to make sure that for future World Cups, or the next attribution, the social question, the question of respect of worker standards, are critical questions in the decision".

The former Togo prime minister said respect for human rights had to include "rights linked to work and especially health and safety at work."

FIFA, which already works with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, said after the meeting that talks on a memorandum of understanding with the ILO were not yet complete.

"We have been engaging with the ILO for a number of years and we want to make sure our fruitful cooperation will continue in the future," Infantino said in a statement.

Houngbo said he was "reasonably optimistic" of reaching agreement with FIFA on workers' rights.

"It cannot be the only element in taking a decision but the ILO would be available to carry out a kind of due diligence of all the candidate countries" for FIFA.

He said the same rules should apply "for the Olympic Games and other sports."

The 2026 World Cup will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico. "In theory, we have no problem. But that does not prevent us from remaining vigilant," said Houngbo.

- Permanent base -

The ILO has had a temporary office in Doha since 2018 advising the Qatar government on its reforms and monitoring conditions for migrant workers who make up nearly 90 percent of the 2.9 million population.

Houngbo has also held talks with Qatar on making the office a permanent base, the first in the Gulf region where nearly all countries face criticism of labour rights.

The ILO chief said many of the attacks on Qatar had shown "double standards".

"I have heard harsh criticism of Qatar, when Qatar has done more in this field than other countries. But nothing is said about the other countries."

Houngbo said Qatar deserved praise for dismantling its punitive 'Kafala' labour system -- which prevented workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without an employer's permission -- introducing a minimum wage and restricting hours that can be worked in heat since international unions made an official complaint to the ILO in 2014.

The government, which has expressed dismay at what it has called "racist" attacks, says it has spent more than $350 million in compensation for stolen and unpaid wages since 2018.

"This shows the engagement of the government and the size of the problem," said the ILO chief.

A "small number" of companies "continue to have illegal practices and that is where we have to continue to work."

The ILO is also pressing Qatar to improve its data gathering to end bitter debates over the number of dead in labour accidents.

The government has said there were 414 deaths in accidents from 2014 to 2020. Rights groups say "thousands" have died.

"I think the public needs to know the truth and sometimes the sincere truth is that there is no credible information," said Houngbo.

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