Sermon: The real scandal of Qatar 2022

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 23 November 2013


In October 2012, Zahir Belounis, a migrant worker in his early thirties, a father of two young daughters, took his employer to court.

For almost a year his salary had not been paid, and Belounis had had enough – legal proceedings, he felt, were the only way he could claim his unpaid wages.
Unfortunately for Belounis, his employer did not react well.
And even more unfortunately for Belounis, the dispute was taking place in a country in which, as a migrant worker, his legal status was entirely in the hands of his sponsor – the very employer with whom he was in dispute was in total control; without the consent of his employer he could not even leave the country – consent that would only come if he backed down completely – facing the alternative of being left without work, payment, or freedom of movement.
It’s like a story from another world – from a world in which personal autonomy is not of value, in which people being treated like chattel is commonplace, in which employing someone does not entail responsibility but only opportunity.  It’s a story, in fact, that would not be out of place in an ancient narrative like the Torah.

In this week’s portion we begin the story of Joseph – sold into slavery – from Ishmaelites to Potiphar, from Potiphar to prison, from prison to Pharaoh – his existence always at the whim of those with power and money – his welfare determined by his usefulness.  Even at the height of his fame and power, even when he is second in command of Egypt, Joseph, like Belounis, may leave the country only with the consent of his employer.

The resonances are strong.
But Zahir Belounis is not a figure in a 3000 year old narrative.
Belounis is not a slave in ancient Egypt but an employee in the 21st Century, a migrant worker doing a job.
And over a year after starting his court action, Belounis remains locked in the dispute, unable to work, unable to leave.

That we have heard of Zahir Belounis at all is down to one fact about him that I failed to mention – that he is a footballer – a journeyman third division footballer, but a footballer; the employer in question is a football team; and, most importantly, the country in question, Qatar, has recently been awarded the 2022 World Cup.  So Zahir Belounis’s case has the support of the international footballers’ union, and his is a story which is suddenly interesting enough to make newspapers pay attention.
But for thousands of migrant workers around the world with experiences which are similar, and far worse, this is not the case.

Let’s stay in Qatar, and the construction programme for the 2022 World Cup.  An Amnesty International report released just this week – to, it should be said, minimal media interest – highlighted a catalogue of human rights concerns around the treatment of migrant construction workers: workers simply not being paid; being forced to work excessive hours, and in dangerous conditions; having their documentation taken – illegally – so that they are placed at risk of arrest and are therefore even more dependent on their employer; being left vulnerable by squalid living conditions.
All this against the backdrop of that very same sponsorship system experienced by Zahir Belounis – that makes it impossible to leave an exploitative situation.  These are not slaves, but are treated as if they are.
As Jews, tales of this sort – either personal stories like that of Belounis, or reports such as Amnesty’s – should cause us great concern – not only because they are human tragedies, but also because they contravene basic religious principles that we hold dear.
Despite its origins in a historical context in which the concept of the individual was not real, and in which slavery was accepted – including by Judaism, it must be said – Despite this, ours is a culture which has a strong tradition of labour rights, one in which maltreatment of employees, of paid workers, in the manner seen in Qatar – and around the world – is, put simply, forbidden.

Underlying the Jewish attitude to workers’ rights are two ideas – firstly that we are, as the Torah states servants to God, and, as the Talmud then adds – not servants to servants.  Each free human being is fundamentally of equal value before God – and a free worker may not be enslaved.
Second is the idea of the dignity of labour – as the Talmud puts it, “Great is labour, for it honours the worker”.  Labour which dishonours, which takes advantage of, which abuses the worker is therefore unacceptable.

From the earliest layer of Jewish text, the Torah, we therefore find obligations on the employer – the obligation, for example, to ensure prompt payment – “the wages of a hired worker shall not stay with you all night until the morning”, we are told.  The obligation not to take advantage – as just one example, Jewish Law explicitly states that a labourer employed to do a specific piece of work who finishes it quickly, cannot be expected to do something else – to fill the rest of the day – without additional payment.  As the Tosefta, a collection of legal traditions from the third century CE puts it: if he finished ploughing by lunchtime, he may not say to him “come and pull the weeds in another field”.
The employer is also obliged to place reasonable limits on hours of work – the most obvious being Shabbat – which was an extraordinary innovation is its time – the idea that even the lowliest worker should not have to work seven days a week.

I don’t want, as it were, to labour the point.  What is important is that in Jewish law and ethics employers have a clear responsibility for the welfare of their workers.
Nowhere is this found more clearly than in a story of the sage Rabbah bar bar Chanan.  As is often the case, it is in a rabbinic story that the principles of Judaism are most clearly found.
The story goes that bar-Chanan had a keg of wine broken by two porters he had employed to shift it for him.  As compensation for his loss, he took their cloaks.  They went and told Rav, the leading religious authority of the time, who instructed that the cloaks be returned.  When bar-Chanan asked ‘Is this really the Law?’ Rav quoted back the book of Proverbs: You should follow the way of the good”.  As if this wasn’t enough, the labourers then complained to Rav about lack of payment: “We are poor people, we worked the entire day; we are starving and have nothing to eat.” So Rav further instructs Rabbah bar Bar-Chanan to pay them, stating “For the verse continues “And keep the paths of the righteous.”
What is significant in this story is not just Rav’s rulings but the texts he quotes.  Rav does not give a legal ruling but a religious principle – that an employer is obliged to do ‘the right and the good’ .

None of which, I want to stress, is it to say that Judaism is anti business – far from it.  Ours is a tradition which is very supportive of enterprise.  And Jewish Law also places significant obligations on the employee – To quote the 12th century authority Maimonides: “Just as the employer is enjoined not to deprive the poor worker of his hire or withhold it from him when it is due, so is the worker enjoined not to deprive the employer of the benefit of this work by idling away his time, a little her and a little there, thus wasting the whole day deceitfully”.  Social media addicts take note.
Nonetheless, Judaism is aware of the realities of the power dynamic – as an employer bar-Chanan, all employers, are responsible for the welfare of their workers, and not simply for fulfilling their contractual obligations to them.

None of which, of course, helps Zahir Belounis, nor the hundreds of workers currently engaged in building the infrastructure for Qatar’s World Cup in 2022.
And it is unlikely that we can do anything about it.
It should be a massive scandal.  Yet, as columnist Marina Hyde has written: “The greatest trick Fifa ever pulled is acting as though the big question mark over the Qatar world cup is the weather”.

Beyond anger, what else can we do?  Let’s face it, angry as we can be – we’re still going to watch the 2022 World Cup, too.

But stories such as this should encourage us to recommit ourselves to our own values – in our personal practice and in our lives – and not to lose sight of our distinctive role as Jews; in the words of Isaiah, to be ‘a light to the nations – opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.’