April 03, 2015

PARIS (AP) One suggests Sepp Blatter dropped the ball with Qatar. Another wants new World Cup rules to safeguard human rights. The third says FIFA must investigate labor abuses.

The three candidates campaigning to dislodge Blatter as FIFA president have detailed to The Associated Press their positions on one of the hot topics of the 2022 World Cup: The plight of migrant laborers in host Qatar.

Hundreds of deaths and well-documented abuses of guest workers in the rich Gulf nation are priority issues for human rights campaigners, but are barely figuring in the FIFA election debate.

Blatter voiced his opinions last month after meeting Qatar's ruling emir, saying ''progress has been made,'' but more must be done ''to ensure uniformly fair working conditions for all.''

The views of his challengers - Luis Figo, Michael van Praag, and Prince Ali bin al-Hussein - have been less clear.

Figo's and Van Praag's published manifestos make no mention of working conditions and rights of laborers on World Cup stadiums and related infrastructure. The same goes for the initial nine-page program published by Prince Ali, who told the AP he will be publishing a full manifesto ''in the coming days.''

The AP sent seven questions about labor rights in Qatar to each of Blatter's challengers.

Via his press team, Prince Ali provided by far the most exhaustive response, with detailed point-by-point replies to each question. He took a swipe at Blatter, who has ''a responsibility to show leadership on this issue. So far, I believe this leadership has been lacking.''

The FIFA vice president also said football's governing body should introduce new safety standards to prevent ''tragic incidents occurring during stadium construction and ensuring labor rights and fair working conditions.'' If elected on May 29, he committed to propose ''clear guidelines that all host nations of FIFA events must adopt - ensuring the safety and security of every worker employed to deliver FIFA's football projects.''

''There is evidence that progress is being made in Qatar with the new laws that ... are now being implemented,'' he said. ''The 2022 World Cup should go ahead in Qatar as planned, and I believe that the emir of Qatar is committed to delivering the positive social change and improvements to conditions for workers that the international community and FIFA are demanding.''

Van Praag's lengthy response to the AP included a commitment to ''follow what happens in Qatar very closely.'' An advocate of expanding the World Cup to 40 teams, the Dutch association chief suggested some matches be played outside Qatar ''so the World Cup legacy and the labor rights situation improves beyond the border of one nation alone in that region.''

Van Praag said World Cup bid regulations should be rewritten to specifically include a section on human rights. He, too, said the 2022 tournament should stay with Qatar.

''Qatar promised to improve and we want to make sure they do, which includes giving them all the assistance they require,'' he wrote.

He noted Blatter's and Qatar's good intentions on labor rights, ''but I don't have reliable information yet on the concrete results.''

Through his press handler, Figo responded with 85 words. Football authorities must look at labor rights ''with the greatest attention,'' and ''human rights are not negotiable and should be respected by every organization in Qatar,'' the Portugal great said.

''I don't have detailed information on what exactly is happening in Qatar. But I believe FIFA has the obligation to investigate, inform, and act accordingly should a disrespect of labor rights (be) consistently found, directly or indirectly linked to one of its competitions.''

At Human Rights Watch, Gulf researcher Nicholas McGeehan was unconvinced about the candidates' sincerity.

''With the apparent exception of Prince Ali, it seems Blatter and the other challengers are paying lip service to the issue out of necessity rather than outlining clear proposals to show how FIFA intends to exert its influence and ensure a real and lasting legacy on this issue,'' McGeehan said by email to the AP.

With a tiny and very wealthy native population of its own, Qatar relies on hundreds of thousands of laborers from India, Nepal, and elsewhere for the muscle to build the stadiums, subways and other infrastructure needed for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

After rights groups and labor unions decried working conditions there, Qatar committed to improvements, and FIFA started paying an interest. Rights groups are urging far deeper, swifter change, and the dismantlement of Qatar's controversial labor system that ties foreign workers to employers and has left them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Qatar last May announced plans for a new law that could eventually end the so-called ''kafala'' system, but has yet to follow through.

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