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Keir Radnedge‘Ding’ appears to have resounded more loudly with FIFA president Sepp Blatter than ‘dong’ over the issue of workers’ rights in Qatar.

Two weeks ago Blatter, assailed with a media storm over the plight of Nepalese construction teams in the 2022 World Cup host state, insisted that he needed to hear the Qatari side of the story before rushing to judgement.

He quoted a saying of his grandmother that a clock chime needed ‘dong’ as well as ‘ding’.

The day after delivering this homespun wisdom Blatter held his first formal meeting with the new Emir of Qatar since the accession of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

The issue of workers’ right was firmly on the agenda, feeding into another firestorm provoked by the Qatari legal system’s failure to level an equitable resolution to the saga of Zahir Belounis, the Franco-Algerian footballer trapped by the notorious kafala tied-worker system.

Immediately after that meeting and while still in Doha, Blatter was diplomatically restrained about the promises of progress he had heard.

Now the veil of diplomacy has fallen.

After meeting trades union leaders back in Zurich, Blatter declared the present situation in Qatar as “unacceptable.”

While the organising 2022 Supreme Committee has laid down a workers care charter this is applicable – if enforceable – only to direct World Cup projects. But a vast array of unregulated supporting infrastructure is planned which, inevitably, is essential to support the World Cup hosting.

Blatter’s Zurich meeting, set up by German federation president Wolfgang Niersbach, involved an exchange of views with Michael Sommer, president of the International Trade Union Conference, and Theo Zwanziger, a member of the FIFA exco and a long-term critic of the Qatar World Cup award.

A FIFA statement commented unequivocally that the men had met “to discuss the slave-like conditions on building sites for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.”

Blatter said afterwards: “Economic and political leaders must contribute to improving the unacceptable situation in Qatar. That is why I welcome the initiative shown by the DFB and ITUC because together we can achieve change.”

He did concede a belief that the Qatari authorities were taking the situation “very seriously” and acknowledged “what an important role football can play in generating publicity and thus bringing about change.”

The ITUC has long campaigned, largely on its own, about the medieval kafala system of tied employment applied to foreign workers in Qatar. Its work was enhanced by media publicity about the plight of Nepalese workers and then the case of ‘trapped footballer’ Zahir Belounis.

Sommer, also long-term leader of the German confederation of trade unions, said: “We are very pleased that FIFA and the DFB have joined us in our mission to establish humane working conditions . . . Qatar must guarantee the ILO’s core labour standards and thus eliminate discrimination and forced labour as well as allow freedom of association for its 1.3m migrant workers.”

Zwanziger, a former president of the German federation and centrally involved in the FIFA reform process, said that clear progress was expected by the spring.

He said: “The aim is to be in a position to report on concrete measures for Qatar at the FIFA executive committee meeting in March 2014. Large companies must be reminded of their duties in this area. The international community must also accept its responsibility.”

By Keir Radnedge

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