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June 29th, 2014

The city of Visby where Almedalen takes place is located on the island of Gotland, which is a famous place for cycling. Biking tours around Gotland are a popular alternative to vacations abroad among the Swedish people. During the Almedalen week we are staying at an apartment outside of the city and will be riding bicycles every day to reach the events. Today we’ve had our first cycling trips and it was amazing to enjoy all the forests and beautiful nature around. It started raining heavily during the first half of the day but cleared up in the afternoon, allowing us to enjoy the seminars.

The Social Democrats Day

Each day is allocated for a specific political party to share their views. Today it was the Social Democrats who presented themselves and shared their pre-election campaign. The Social Democrats stand for creating a society, where all humans are born equal. Equality means absence of class differences, sexual segregation, and ethnic divisions. They believe that people should grow and develop in cooperation with one another, because common good creates solidarity. The Social Democrats have maintained their strength over the past century and encourage other countries to create a civil society where each person is responsible and takes part in developing their society. Sweden implemented this long time ago through trade unions, youth organizations, and different cooperative initiatives that brought the country to its current state.

The Kafala System in Europe

Social Democrats are in very close cooperation with the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO). The seminar that stood out to me today was organized by LO and covered the subject of international sports events and human rights. This topic was also relevant to me, because I have just got my degree in tourism, and sports event management was part of my master’s program. It was shared during the seminar that while so many people attend big sports events, they don’t always realize the pain that made those events possible. The staff preparing the arenas are often migrant workers, who are paid very small salaries and have bad living and working conditions. The center of attention was the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar 2022. Most of the employees for this event come from Nepal hoping to find a better life. However, according to the International Trade Union confederation (ITUC), four thousand people already died while constructing the arenas in Qatar. In the Middle East the Kafala system is used to monitor foreign employees. This systems implies that the employer acts as a sponsor and is responsible for the legal status of the migrant workers. This allows the employers to mistreat the workers by taking their passports away and preventing them from leaving the job. This becomes similar to slavery and human rights organization are trying to encourage reforms in the Kafala system. During the seminar there were speakers from four countries: Australia, Nepal, Korea, and Sweden. They were giving their perspectives on what can be done to improve the situation. Some of the solutions discussed were informing people around the world about the problem and creating a dialog with the government of Qatar. If the negotiations don’t lead to any results, FIFA should consider changing the country for the World Cup. The Swedish speaker emphasized that there should be a comprehensive approach to tackle the problem and all the EU countries should be involved. The Australian speaker supported this idea by mentioning that the rich countries should change first and refuse to watch the games based on violation of human rights.

It is important to hear international perspectives on human rights, because they help see a clearer picture of how human rights can be protected and what violation of human rights may look like. The situation in Qatar reminded me of my trip to Greece in 2010, where I observed young students from eastern Europe being exploited by Greek hotels, calling it “an internship” and paying 16 Euros per day. The organization arranging such internships was called Job Trust and the conditions were quite similar to the Kafala system in the Middle East. First, full-time jobs involving demanding physical work were registered as internships for making it legal to hire non-EU students and pay them lower than minimum wages. Second, the students were not allowed to leave the job and change for another employer during the stay. Third, according to the contract, the students were supposed to work 8 hours per day and have 2 days-off per week, neither of which was observed. Finally, the living conditions were quite poor as well. Job Trust is still operating freely. The question is, if the EU has such things happening within its borders, how can it solve the same problems in the Middle East? A Spanish friend told me recently that in Spain the working conditions are often very bad as well, and nobody cares. And according to my friends from Lithuania, they were also mistreated during their summer jobs in restaurant and hotel business.

Based on conversations with people and my personal experience, employee rights seem to be best protected in Western and Northern Europe. In some EU countries in Southern and Eastern Europe much work still needs to be done to protect employee rights. It is good to raise the problem in Qatar, but it is also important for the EU to monitor the situation in its own countries more effectively. It is also important to spread awareness of human rights, so that people are educated about them globally and can recognize it if these rights are violated. The Almedalen week is a great contributor to raising such awareness and educating people on human rights.

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