A United Nations agency says Barcelona’s shirt sponsor systematically discriminates against women

Earlier this week, the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency founded to “promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues,” found Qatar guilty of allowing Qatar Airways, a fully state-owned airline, to institute discriminatory policies and practices against its female employees.

You may know Qatar Airways as Barcelona’s shirt sponsor or as an official bid sponsor of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The airline has also reportedly been in talks to become an official FIFA World Cup sponsor in the aftermath of Emirates refusing to renew its FIFA sponsorship.

The ILO case, brought by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), specifically alleged that Qatar violated ILO conventions by having policies for terminating women who are pregnant, and prohibiting women from being dropped off or picked up from work while accompanied by any man who isn’t her husband, father or brother, among other allegations.

Responding to the charges, Qatar hilariously argued that, since 80 percent of Qatar Airways’ cabin staff is female, its policies “cannot be considered discriminatory simply because the majority of employees are women.”

On the pregnancy issue, Qatar Airways’ employment contracts, through December 2014, included the following clause:

“The employee shall notify the employer in case of pregnancy from the date of her knowledge or its occurrence. The employer shall have the right to terminate the contract of employment from the date of notification of the pregnancy. Failure of employees to notify the employer or the concealment of the occurrence shall be considered a breach of contract.”

The new, post-2014 employment contracts read as follows:

“The employee shall confirm and understand that as per the Qatar Civil Aviation Regulations, Cabin Crew are considered unfit to fly during pregnancy. Accordingly, the company reserves the right to automatically terminate your contract as a flying Cabin Crew Member should you become pregnant. … Should another suitable ground position with Qatar Airways be available during this period you may apply and undergo the recruitment process for the position if found suitable.”

The problem here is two-fold. Employment distinctions based on pregnancy and maternity only affect women, and thereby, per the ILO’s ruling, constitute direct discrimination on the basis of sex.

The other issue with these clauses is that women can be terminated as a function of reproductive realities. ILO standards prohibit termination during pregnancy and call for steps to accommodate women during pregnancy, whether via reassignment (without loss of pay), paid leave, or other alternatives that allow women to continue employment. Under ILO conventions, “motherhood or work” isn’t a reasonable or fair choice to impose on women.

The ILO report details further allegations. You should have a skim. But what does all this mean for Qatar and Qatar Airways? Who’s going to be publicly flogged? Well, you probably already know the answer to that.

Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker responded to the ILO report by telling Reuters, “I don’t give a damn about the ILO – I am there to run a successful airline.” He added, “This is evidence of a vendetta they have against Qatar Airways and my country. My country has responded to the ILO accusations in a very robust way. We clarified the clauses in our contract.”

Juventus v FC Barcelona  - UEFA Champions League FinalGetty Images

From an enforcement perspective, the ILO ruling doesn’t do much. The ILO only has the power to make recommendations to member nations found to be breaching labor standards. It doesn’t impose fines or other penalties. No one’s going to be plastered onto an Interpol poster.

But there is a shaming factor to consider. The ILO relies on the international community’s support to pressure those found to be violating labor standards. By making decisions public, member states, the media, and other stakeholders have access to rulings detailing transgressions — information that can certainly be used to tarnish an organization’s reputation and potentially impact its bottom line. That isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s something. Qatar ratified the ILO’s Discrimination Convention in 1976, and it was just found to be in violation of that convention.

From a soccer perspective, it’s just another bad look for Barcelona. The 2014-15 UEFA Champions League winners’ $45 million a year shirt sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways expires at the end of the 2015-16 season. They are in talks to sign a new deal that will reportedly double amount the Gulf-based airline will pay the Catalan club to splash its name across the chest of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Andrés Iniesta, and the rest of the club’s stars.

Should fully state-owned Qatar Airways’ treatment of its female employees matter in the soccer world? Of course. The ILO report came out during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, hosted in Canada. A nation affiliating with one of the world’s most popular club teams and vying to be a key sponsor for the global body governing the game probably shouldn’t be propping up businesses that contractually stipulate that women can be fired for being pregnant, or whose policies stipulate which men can accompany female employees onto work grounds. Qatar’s horrific labor record has already been the subject of much public scrutiny, but at some point, one has to ask what behavior soccer won’t accept in exchange for money.

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