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Qatargate: What the scandal reveals about the global trade union movement

In early December, the newly-elected leader of the International Trade Union Confederation, Luca Visentini, was arrested in Brussels as part of a major police operation targeting members of the European Parliament. Visentini was released conditionally after a couple of days and temporarily stepped aside from his new job.

Guest blog by Eric Lee

The scandal — quickly branded as “Qatargate” — involved large payments in cash from the Qatari government to leading figures in the European Parliament, mainly from the centre-left Socialist & Democrat (S&D) faction. The most prominent figure arrested was Eva Kaili, a Greek politician who did little to hide her support for the Qatari regime. She publicly called Qatar a “frontrunner in labour rights” after meeting with the country’s labour minister.

Though the ITUC’s Visentini denied any wrongdoing and announced his eagerness to clear his name, he admitted that he had received tens of thousands of Euros in cash from the NGO at the heart of the scandal. The money, he claimed, was used primarily to support his campaign to be elected ITUC leader, including funds to pay travel expenses for delegates who were likely to support him at the Melbourne congress. That Visentini thought this explanation would suffice is shocking.

The ITUC got barely a mention in mass media coverage of the arrests. This is because its media profile is so low that most journalists covering the story have probably never come across it before. And yet the organisation represents most of the world’s national trade union centres, including the British TUC and the American AFL-CIO.

The ITUC has been relatively weak on the subject of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, having engaged for a long time in “quiet diplomacy” with the regime. Unlike Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and groups supporting the rights of migrant workers, the leading body of the world’s labour movement was largely silent on human rights violations in Qatar while praising “progress” being made there.

There is even a video made available by Qatar’s Labour Ministry showing the previous ITUC leader, Sharan Burrow, praising the efforts being made by the regime — and encouraging doubters to come to see this for themselves. This all pre-dates Visentini’s election.

The ITUC came under fire from several Nordic unions and others, including the German trade unionist Frank Hoffer. Hoffer wrote a blistering attack on the organisation’s leadership which was widely circulated. The Building and Wood Workers’ International, one of the global unions which has done the most in support of migrants in the region, was swift to react: “It is always extremely serious when those with public responsibilities are charged with corruption,” they wrote. “It is even more outrageous when those who are allegedly bribed are … claiming to stand on [the] workers’ side.”

The ITUC General Council decided not to sack Visentini nor to call new elections for the post, even after he admitted to taking the cash to fund his campaign. Instead, it announced that it would suspend him for three months and that its General Council would meet again. The statement concluded by saying that “this in no way implies any presumption of guilt.”

Meanwhile, the Greek party PASOK and the European Parliament had already taken much more dramatic steps to expel those arrested by the Belgian police.

On one level, the core of the problem is that the ITUC leadership, which was well aware of large-scale, persistent human rights violations in Qatar, chose not to campaign openly nor to mobilise its millions of members. Instead, it met behind the scenes with Qatar’s rulers, securing some concessions on paper.

But at another level, the problem with the ITUC is structural. It is a confederation of national trade union centres. That means that while on paper, it claims to represent hundreds of millions of workers, the reality is that only very few of those workers have heard of the organisation.

Its decision-making process is opaque. Compared with how the ITUC has handled this scandal, the European Parliament has been open and transparent — words I never thought I would write.

The leaders of the ITUC’s affiliated national trade union centres, including the British TUC, should be demanding a full accounting not only regarding the bags of cash that Visentini admits taking but also of its long-standing policy of engagement with the Qatari regime. We should be demanding complete openness and transparency from the ITUC, starting with live video-streaming of its next General Council meeting.

The migrant workers in Qatar, many of whom died in the years leading up to the FIFA World Cup, should have been able to count on the full support of the world’s unions. Instead, they were betrayed by some who we entrusted with leading our movement. Shame on them.

Originally published in


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