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Qatar’s draconian employment laws pose even more problems for FIFA

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Earlier this year, the CEO of Qatar Airways – which sponsors Barcelona FC – raised eyebrows with the following statement:

"If you did not have unions you wouldn’t have this jobless problem in the western world," said Akbar Al Baker. "It is caused by unions making companies and institutions uncompetitive and bringing them to a position of not being efficient.

"If you go and ask the politicians in most of the countries in the western world they would love to have the system we have: where the workers have rights through the law, but they do not have rights through striking and undermining successful institutions that provide jobs to their knees."

Those mildly fascistic quotes resurfaced after Qatar Airways drew controversy for their policy of firing stewardesses for daring to get married, or pregnant.

Fans and pundits were surprised that an institution which lives by the mantra Mes Que Un Club could do business with an organisation – and a nation – with such open contempt for workers.

Those familiar with employment laws in the Gulf States – particularly for foreign workers – will be aware that such an attitude is the tip of the iceberg.

In nations such as Qatar, foreign workers are legally forbidden from leaving the country without being granted an exit visa by their employer.

Yes, you read that right – if you work in one of these energy-rich emirates, you cannot go home of your own volition.

In practice this has had little impact on Westerners, who are largely treated with a degree of deference by the locals (unless they openly flout socially conservative laws, but that’s another matter). The abuse of such a system is usually confined to poorly-paid, terribly treated manual labourers from developing countries, whose employment is little short of servitude.

But the curious and borderline scandalous case of French footballer Zahir Belounis has finally alerted football’s authorities to the feudal attitude Qatar takes towards labour.

Belounis, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, has been trapped in Qatar for six months after his club – Al Jaish – refused to issue an exit visa until he dropped a court case challenging 18 months of allegedly unpaid wages.

Football’s global union FIFPro – which Qatar no doubt refuses to recognise – waded into the saga.

"We are of the view, and the FIFA regulations are clear, that if a player has a dispute with his club, he should be able to continue to play while the dispute is resolved," Brendan Schwab, head of FIFPro's Asia division, told Reuters.

"In this case, not only can the player not continue his career, he cannot even move."

Belounis, who went to Qatar on a five-year contract with Al Jaish, has been prevented from leaving since February after he filed the lawsuit.

He even says that he tried to leave the club three years ago when his original contract expired - but that Al Jaish told him he had to stay. He accepted that because of the money on offer, but when it reportedly failed to materialise, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

"I initially got hold of some lawyers, but it turned out they were close to the club's representatives," the 33-year-old Belounis told the JeuneAfriques website in March.

"I was handed a piece of paper - it said I waived any money owed, and that if I signed I would be given my visa. Of course, I refused.

"Since then I have not been allowed to leave. I fired my lawyers and got some new ones, English ones. Things have moved more quickly since then but the club is now denying that I had a contract until 2015 - for which we have the proof - and is still refusing to grant me my visa.

"They claim I am not owed any money by the club, that I am not part of the team. Yet I am still living in club accommodation, and I have the contract!"

FIFPro's Schwab agreed that the situation was ridiculous.

"He has no freedom of movement as a human being, as a citizen, and so we think it's not only a violation of the footballer's rights but it's a fundamental violation of his rights as a human being.

"We think it's time to stop and say the football family cannot be united if the human rights of the players are not being respected."

Although there were reports a week ago that Belounis was about to receive his exit visa, FIFPro said they understood he was still in the country.

Several reports on Twitter also said he had yet to be allowed home.

"I'm optimistic about the success of the football dialogue we have with the authorities in Western Asia, but we do need them to understand that situations such as the one with Belounis are not acceptable," said Schwab.

"FIFA and the Qatari FA could stop this problem with Belounis immediately and we call on them to do so... by instructing the club to issue the necessary exit visa."

"FIFA is loath to (intervene)."

Schwab said that, elsewhere, there had been a "huge effort" to help Belounis.

"The international trade union movement has been involved, letters have gone to the French government, letters to the French president and I think that goes to show just how difficult it can be to get a simple outcome like that.

"Belounis was contemplating a drastic action (hunger strike) in order to be released and it's a tragic set of circumstances, where players have to resort to that to have their rights respected.

"If Eastern Europe and Western Asia... are going to be rewarded with the great events and great honours of hosting the World Cups, we think it's very important that universal human rights standards apply, and more modestly that the standards agreed between FIFA and FIFPro apply in every country in which professional football is played."

Earlier this year Abdeslam Ouaddou – also a French citizen and a former Fulham defender – said he was the victim of a similar situation in Qatar.

"When you work in Qatar you belong to someone," he told FIFPro's website earlier this year. "You are not free. You are a slave."

Ouaddou managed to get out, leaving Qatar SC and returning to France with Nancy. But he was a bigger fish, a former Morocco international with the means to expedite his departure.

Belounis is not so fortunate.

You may note a pattern – while Westerners tend to be treated well by authorities, things can become complicated for those with dual nationality, who are often viewed as being Arabs as opposed to Europeans.

"We highlight these problems, but the opportunities on offer financially in Western Asia, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, can be as attractive as anywhere in the football world," said Schwab.

"There are some very substantial contracts on offer, but players need to be aware when they go that there are certain aspects that are unique and we are learning about these all the time."

Schwab said that, at 33, Belounis was unlikely to play professionally again, even after he got out.

"This will end the player's career in all likelihood because the career is short term and precarious and it's very difficult for a player to miss a substantial period of his career and then continue."

@Reda_Eurosport, and Reuters

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