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An interview with Sharan Burrow

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This is quite a long interview so I won’t bore you with a long introduction, but suffice to say that it was a real honour and a privilege. Regular readers of may or may not be aware that my day job is as a paid union official. If you don’t like unions, that’s ok, but you should be aware that without the union movement paying me during the week, I wouldn’t have the resources to drive around the countryside on weekends photographing and writing about the game we all love! They are good like that. So turn that frown upside down!

Unions are good for quite a lot of other things too. One of those is standing up for the rights of workers wherever there is injustice in the world. And one of the places where some of the biggest injustices are occurring right now is Qatar, as the Gulf State prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. You know this of course, because you read Helen Kelly’s guest post that I ran on this very subject a little under a month ago.

Sharan Burrow is the global head of the union movement. My boss’s boss’s boss you could say! But put simply she is the Ban Ki-moon of workers of the world, and right now she is in New Zealand to talk about the situation in Qatar in the run up to our nation hosting the Under 20 World Cup.

I was extremely fortunate to have half an hour of her time today.

EG: Thanks so much for this, it’s really nice to meet you!

SB: You too!

EG: Let’s start with a little bit about the ITUC for people reading this who might not know too much about your organisation. Can you just give us a quick overview of what it does and what you do?

SB: Yes, the International Trade Union Confederation is the global body for trade union members. We have 180 million members around the world in almost all countries, so it’s kind of like a global CTU [New Zealand’s Council of Trade Unions].

EG: And what about yourself? What called you to the cause of workers’ rights?

SB: Ooh heavens above! Well, I was a teacher by trade. I spoke out about teacher and student conditions and what we needed for quality education. I taught for ten years and the next thing I knew I’d volunteered to do a job for my union and the rest is history! I never meant not to teach, I love teaching, but you know, something else was destined I suppose!

EG: And bang! Now you’re the international leader for workers all around the world! Pretty cool.

SB: I come from a small little town in Western New South Wales called Warren, and so there you go. From a community of 2,000 to the global front but what a journey and what a privilege for somebody like me.

EG: Absolutely, a lot of people’s dream job – particularly mine! Ha ha. Do you have any interest in football as a game? Do you follow it at all?

SB: Well, now I’m passionately interested! I have to tell you that coming from Australia we call this game ‘soccer’ as you know, and it was kind of something your kids played and then you watched Australian soccer grow. But globally now I’ve learned that actually there are so many of our members for whom it’s almost a religion! It’s their community actually. Whether it’s their local football team – I call it football now! – or whether it’s the World Cup, it’s kind of like the place where people meet and… I’ve learned just how passionate people are about it. And I’ve helped footballers who have been trapped in Qatar so their families have become part of my broader family and I can appreciate both the passion for the game and the mistreatment of workers who are trying to simply do what they do best.

EG: Heading up an organisation that represents 180 million workers around the globe, there must be thousands of causes around the world to pursue, so why FIFA and why Qatar?

SB: Well if you think about it, what’s the worst form of abuse of human beings? It’s got to be slavery. When I took the job over in 2010 and I looked at the state of the world, and you’re right, there is conflict, there is abuse of workers’ rights in lots of global corporations. One of our other major campaigns is in fact changing the model of supply chains, a dominant model of trade which is an exploitative model, and I could tell you horror stories of how there are workers who are enslaved in our supply chains, in our fishing supply chains, in our manufacturing supply chains. So that’s a major issue for us but it’s always been our core business.

But when I looked at the fact that modern day slavery not only existed but was growing, and it was being used as a development model, not for poor countries but for the richest countries in the world. I mean it wouldn’t be acceptable in a poor country to be enslaved but in the richest country ion the world? In Qatar?

And then when, of course they awarded Qatar the World Cup, I was optimistic! I went to FIFA with my team and said “can you help?” and they asked us for six months. So we gave it to them to talk to the Qataris, to look at whether they could legislate for workers’ rights and not a thing happened. So of course we started our campaign. And then three years later, you know there is a global storm around the issue now, but still not a thing has happened.

So we have two messages around the game of football: One, ‘don’t shame the game’ because it is much loved by people and they want to know that it does good, that it helps people, you know, grow personally but also as a community. And secondly, there can be no World Cup in Qatar without workers’ rights. It’s that simple.

EG: Great, so we’ll unpick a little bit of that but I think first up – you use the term slavery, a lot of people think of slavery as people working for no money. How do you define slavery in Qatar?

SB: Well if you’re owned, lock, stock and barrel, by another person, that’s bonded labour or slavery. It has various terms. We call it modern day slavery, because in fact you can be working for very little money and you can spend whole periods of time in Qatar where you’re not paid wages at all. There’s no effective court or compliance system to force an employer.

But let me just give you a description of the process:

You’re a desperate worker from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, parts of Africa. You want to work to help your family. They are starving, they are struggling to survive, so you go to an agency that tells you you’ll earn so much in Qatar. You’re forced, more often than not, to pay fees that are illegal, that no worker could have in those countries so they borrow from a bank or they beg from their families. So they’re already indebted – sometimes, believe it or not, a thousand, or I’ve heard two thousand US dollars, and I mean this is ridiculous.

And then, of course, you go to Qatar, you think you’ve got a contract but you are more often than not probably going to see that contract torn up and you’ll be paid less than half of those wages. If you’re Nepalese you’ll probably be paid less than Indians. If you’re Sri Lankan you’ll be paid less than Indians. If you’re Indonesian you might be paid a little more. It depends on whether your government can cut a deal for decent wages with Qatar. Qatar takes no responsibility for a minimum wage that demonstrates equal treatment of workers.

Then you are actually housed by your employer. You’re forced to live in squalor, I’ve walked in and out of those labour camps and I can tell you, you wouldn’t want your sons or daughters or brothers or fathers to be treated with the indignity of grown men, 8, 10, 12 bunk beds to a tiny little room, not even room for sitting in many areas, certainly not for a chair, no wardrobes, nothing that would be what we would consider a home. And then squalled conditions for cooking, and for sanitation, that frankly must contribute to the extraordinary level of illness.

Then you’re piled onto the busses at 5:30, 6 in the morning. You go to work on a construction site or in a service environment. In construction, you’ll work 8, 10, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, in extreme conditions in summer – 50, 60 degree heat. You’ll be taken home after those long hours and you cook your food, you go to bed, no recreation facilities. Then you get up and do it all over again.

And when you’ve had enough, or when you’re paid no wages and you can get no just treatment, or you’re subject to violence and abuse, and you want to change jobs or go home, you’re owned by that employer. So unless they sign a transfer certificate called an NOC for another job or they give you an exit visa, you can’t leave. You are trapped in Qatar. That’s slavery.

EG: And you don’t have to be an unskilled worker for this to happen to you. It’s happened to world class footballers that you’ve helped!

SB: Yeah, people believe that it’s about poor migrant workers until they find themselves in the same situation. They know the conditions but they don’t think about it like that. So two of our most amazing footballers, there are many stories I could tell you, but Abdes Ouaddou is a French Moroccan man who is a footballer in France, most beautiful character and a fantastic ball player, he rang me up one day. He said, I was literally sitting in my office, and he said “Sharan, I was trapped in Qatar, I got out but I have friends there. Can you help, and I want to help you.”

Then one of the families who were in his friendship circle was the family of Zahir Belounis, and Zahir will tell you he got to the point of wanting to commit suicide because they wouldn’t honour his contract. That family, I visited them in Qatar, they are beautiful people, and I can tell you that for he and another footballer who are French citizens, when the President of France went to Qatar we petitioned him to bring them out with him. François Hollande met with those footballers but even he couldn’t convince the authorities to let him take his own citizens home with him.

Now eventually we got them out with major publicity, but you know, FIFA did nothing. Not a thing.  And yet they are the people who sponsor these clubs. Just like they have done nothing for the contract workers. So you can be at any level of professional life or a poor migrant worker and you are subject to modern day slavery. ‘The kafala system’ they call it. Qatar could change this tomorrow. They just refuse to.

EG: So when people say that sport and politics don’t mix, obviously they do.

SB: Well they have to. You know, I’ve spoken to football associations, football fans, you can imagine what a mass meeting in Argentina or Brazil is like in terms of mixing sport and politics… with workers’ rights! And when you ask them what they think of FIFA, they are so distressed about this global body that is so corrupt and would keep their brothers and sisters enslaved for the game that they love.

But when you think about the power of FIFA, it’s abusive. Not only will they not do anything about Qatar and they do hold, I mean you can’t deny that the Qatari government are the evil architects of this system, but when you understand that if they simply said to Qatar “you want the World Cup? Then you have to respect workers’ rights” and Qatar would accept that, then you wonder why they don’t do that. Why they would want people treated in that way, their very lives at risk in terms of construction, but also just the extremism of the conditions.

But then, when you go to Russia, or Brazil, but Russia – they actually demanded that legislation go through the parliament there… in the dead of night basically, they removed rights for workers associated with the World Cup in 2018… Now of course when workers, and to their credit employers, in Russia found this out, it’s been reversed, but that’s their power. So when people say FIFA has no power in this environment, that’s simply nonsense, Enzo.

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And when you know that the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, has changed their view, that they put in place for their 2020 plan, which will be for all the bids from then, criteria that says host cities, that means the nation of the host city, must be able to demonstrate that they meet their international obligations for human rights and workers’ rights must be protected. Then you say, if it’s good enough for the IOC, then why not for FIFA? There’s no answer to that except that Sepp Blatter simply doesn’t care that human beings are being treated as less than human, as animals, in the context of building the construction frameworks and servicing the World Cup. It’s shameful for the game of football.

EG: So you’ve met with Sepp Blatter and the Qatari government? What have they told you?

SB: I can tell you that we’ve met with FIFA and their leadership and they keep telling us that things will change. With the Qatari government, the first year, in 2011 and 2012 even, I was a little bit optimistic but they make empty promises. They refuse to accept that these workers have fundamental rights. We’ve given them four, just four things they could do to turn us from a campaigning organisation, along with human rights, Amnesty and other groups, against the Qatari authorities, into a supportive organisation of their development.

They simply have to accept that people have freedom to associate – that they can actually have a collective voice. That they have a minimum wage which is not an apartheid system of wages – that if you’re doing the same job you get paid the same wage no matter what your race is. If they took responsibility for a compliance system, or a labour court or commission or tribunal – and there are countries around the world and of course the International Labour Organisation, the UN body, that could help. And if they end the kafala system. Now that’s four simple things. The truth is the Emir is the only person in Qatar with the power to make that happen, and nobody has demanded it of him. Not a government leader, not FIFA, it’s a conspiracy of silence.

EG: So why is that? How can we change it? How can we have an effect here?

SB: I think that if we have a commitment to never give up, to say that slavery has no place in a modern society, we will win. We won’t win it tomorrow. But you know, I’m so grateful for the journalists, the football associations, the fans, and now, increasingly, university staff, students and cultural groups like artists who are taking this fight with us, also into the other Gulf States against recreating cultural institutions like universities, the Guggenheim, the Louvre…

You know, we have to win this fight. It’ll take advocacy, it’ll take legal action. In France we’re supporting an NGO called Sherpa who has a major construction company in the courts. Whatever it takes, Enzo. We cannot stand back and say any of our world can exist on the basis of slavery.

EG: Do you still think it’s possible to get the World Cup moved?

SB: I do. I think the vote is absolutely there for the taking. What we want to see, we’ve never set out to say the World Cup should be here or it should be there. What we’ve set out to say is if you’re going to hold a World Cup anywhere, or any major sporting tournament, then there ought to be a floor of human and labour rights. People must matter. And the dignity that we would want, the rights we would want for our children, our fathers, husbands, grandfathers – we want to know that that exists as a floor for any major sporting body, or cultural institution, that relies on people as supporters.

EG: Is Sepp Blatter the problem or is FIFA rotten to the core? Do you think a change in the presidency would necessarily fix anything?

SB: Well I think FIFA is rotten to the core. But I also think that there are splits, and there are good people who we’ve spoken to in the leadership who know that something has got to change. Now I think, sadly, despite our election campaign, we’ve got a how to vote ticket, but despite that I think Sepp Blatter will win. And really, if you wanted to pinpoint the power of one man, all he would have to do is actually say to the Emir, you can have the World Cup, but you must have fundamental labour rights. In fact he appointed an investigator from Germany who himself has said now that the World Cup shouldn’t go ahead in Qatar. So people know it’s wrong, they know that there’s an evil afoot there that must be changed, but you do need the courage of everybody to speak up and frankly if Sepp Blatter felt that pressure, I think even he would have to acknowledge that he can’t continue to defend this evil.

EG: Is there a preferred candidate in the election?

SB: We’re now investigating the candidates. Michael van Praag is respected by our union movement. He has two question marks in the three questions we asked but I think we can already change one with his commitment, and people are discussing this with him. The candidate from Jordan, believe it or not, has an understanding of the issues so, you know, there are choices. We haven’t got the results yet but we’ve done a poll in those four countries, where there are candidates, and we’ve asked them simple questions about the World Cup and FIFA and I think you will see people with a much greater awareness. So even if Sepp Blatter is re-elected, which would be a tragedy, nevertheless I don’t think it’ll come cheaply.

EG: So obviously there’s an Under 20 World Cup being held in New Zealand and this is an opportunity for New Zealanders to have some influence. So what can we do?

SB: I think if people celebrate the game by turning up in droves but making a statement, you know, with a poster, a badge, a sticker, sign a petition, do something that shows that people love the game but they don’t want it shamed and they want Qatar to change – I think that will make a huge difference. Because this is a young generation and their families, proud of their kids – you would be, I would be – you know it’s a magnificent thing to get to that level in a sporting environment. But we’re all human beings and we know what kind of lives we want for our families. We know that the families of workers in Qatar just want the same. That’s called solidarity and I can assure you FIFA will hear it.

EG: Do you think they actually have shame, FIFA or Qatar? Because it doesn’t really feel like it sometimes.

SB: Does the Qatari government have shame? No, not at the level of the leadership. There are good people in the Qatari world. I can tell you stories, we haven’t talked about domestic workers but they are not only owned by another person but they are often beaten, burnt – I’ve seen domestic workers burnt can you imagine? – raped, impregnated and they become prisoners with their children. But there are good Qatari families who rescue these domestic workers for us. So I have great respect for some of the people. I don’t think they choose this.

For FIFA, I think that it’s a mixed bag. There are people, Jerome Champagne out of France, he’s got a very different view to others. There are people who want FIFA to change, and I know the football associations want FIFA to change, and indeed we’ve seen FIFPro, the union for players, now stand up for their players in a way that players can be proud of. I’m not sure yet that the deal is over for players in terms of the conditions. It’s certainly not over for workers in terms of the journey to 2022.

So I think we can effect change. I’m an optimist but I just think the power of people’s voices collectively to build decent communities and societies, to not have our schools or our cultural institutions shamed. I think we can win.

EG: Is there any good reason to be putting pressure on New Zealand Football? Should we be talking to our clubs about going to New Zealand Football to put pressure on FIFA?

SB: Absolutely, yes I do. You know I’ve learned a lot about football clubs and associations, and their contributions to their communities are enormous. I would say that in many ways they can be as proud as we can of the contributions to building communities and societies, to providing a sense of purpose that people have. If you think of the dignity of work, then the dignity of sport is another avenue for people to find themselves, and their competence and their confidence in being human beings. So we know that the football clubs, their fans, the associations broadly have taken it up to FIFA. The more of that we see the better.

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EG: We’ve got five minutes left, I wonder if I could just move off Qatar and talk about something else that’s a little bit dear to my heart… You’re only the second woman to have been the President of the ACTU and you’re the first woman to head up the ITUC, and I just wanted to ask you about the parallels between the struggle of women for equality in the workplace and in the sporting world. We’ve got women’s football still seen by many if not most as inferior to the male equivalent and media coverage of our game (along with most others) is still dominated by men. In New Zealand, almost all of our top female teams are coached by men. Do you have any wisdom from the labour movement to offer those of us in the sporting world on how we can change that?

SB: We have a campaign message that says “count us in”. Women around the world, whether it’s count us in to the economy and decent work, jobs that pay a fair wage, that pay an equal wage – I’ve stood with women today in the public sector who are basically working for free from today until June because they have 14% less in their pay packets than men. But it’s the same in the sporting world, it’s the same in politics, in management, it defies me sometimes to understand why. But, you know, it’s 2015, and women hold up half the sky. So I can only say to you, thank you for your solidarity and support across all fields.

I just think it’s time. Whatever it is that we don’t value about women’s contributions, it’s time we sort of thought deeply about it. Can you imagine not having the women in your family, and as you say, the women who have made it in professional sport, they are just as tough a games. You know, they might be women but I’ve seen basketball and football games with women, hockey, where it’s just as tough, it’s just as entertaining, so please keep up the fight. It will help.

EG: New Zealand Football has set a goal that women’s elite football will be coached and officiated by females by 2021” and there has been a lot of push back, some of which is from female players who say they want to be coached and refereed by the best ‘regardless of gender’ and fear that their progress will be hampered by ‘inferior female coaches and referees’. Do you have any views on gender quotas in organisations that may translate across to this situation?

SB: You know I’ve always been a ‘rules and vigilance’ girl. I think if you don’t have the rules that provide gender equality you don’t change the culture and you don’t establish the vigilance to maintain the rules. It’s like that in business, or in the rules of sport or in the workplaces – if you don’t have those rules and the rights to see them implemented then we will have those kind of statements. I’ve always found that statement about ‘we want the best’ to really be such a sexist statement in its own right. Are we really saying that we don’t have the best teachers amongst women as well as men? Or coaches or sporting champs? I’ve seen women coach and referee children’s sporting events that you’d be intimidated by at a long distance.

So I just think people are fearful because of the dominant culture. If we can overlook that, put the rules in place, allow women to show they are equal to men, we will have people in competition – sometimes it will be a woman, sometimes it will be a man who will be the best person for the job – but you’ve got to get them there first to let them show that they’ve got the capacity to do it.

EG: That’s all the questions I had, is there anything else you’d like to add?

SB: No, I just thank you for your interest and it’s people like you that will make a difference. Can I tell you that we started the Qatar campaign and we had two bloggers who were interested and three years later you can’t say the word Qatar on anything, it drives them nuts, they even pay journalists to come into Qatar to provide them with all the good news stories but workers’ rights, the slavery of migrant workers always gets a run so it’s people like you who make the difference Enzo. Thank you.

[If you’d like to listen to Sharan talk some more on this topic, check out her interview on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon this morning.]

Categories: FIFA New Zealand 2015 Interviews

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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