Qatargate: the FGTB and the CSC demand the departure of Luca Visentini

Editorial Team
Qatargate vector illustration. Political scandal of Qatar corruption at the European Parliament including bribery, money laundering and organized crime.

Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) A waiver of immunity, an arrest, and an indictment. The Qatargate scandal has shaken the European Parliament. Its members are suspected of participating in a vast network of corruption for Qatar’s and Morocco’s benefits.

But the investigation launched by the Belgian courts is also causing a stir within the international trade union movement. Because of a man: Luca Visentini. Less than a month before Qatargate, the Italian had taken the head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), an organization in which we find the big Belgian unions and which claims to represent 200 million workers in the world.

Italian trade unionists arrested

Luca Visentini, the name of this high-level trade unionist, both in Europe and internationally, appeared from the start of Qatargate. On Friday, December 9, 2022, when the scandal broke out, he was arrested in Brussels. Like the other main players in the case, the former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, the Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili, and her companion Francesco Giorgi, he is suspected of participating in a criminal organization, a vast network of corruption for the benefit of Qatar.

Luca Visentini’s detention will be brief. 48 hours. He is released on conditions, without charge. However, afterward, the Italian made a confession. While claiming to be innocent, he acknowledges having received a “donation” from Fight Impunity, the human rights NGO created by the Italian Pier Antonio Panzeri, the alleged mastermind of Qatargate.

A donation from Fight Impunity

” I received a donation from Fight Impunity, for a total amount of fewer than 50,000 euros “, said Luca Visentini on Wednesday, December 21, 2022, in a statement addressed to the General Council of the ITUC. In this document, which we obtained, he also explains what he did with this sum.

The donation from Fight Impunity enabled him to finance his electoral campaign to take the helm of the ITUC, the International Trade Union Confederation: ” I transferred part of this donation to the ETUC (the European Trade Union Confederation of which Luca Visentini was the General Secretary between 2015 and 2022 – editor’s note) to reimburse most of the costs of my campaign for the ITUC Congress, and part of the donation to the ITUC to support travel costs to the Congress of Trade Unions who have limited financial means or zero. ”

An election he won. On Tuesday, November 22, 2022, Luca Visentini became the new ITUC General Secretary.

The union world was in shock

Luca Visentini claims to have accepted this ” cash donation in good faith, because of the quality of the donor and its non-profit nature “. But his arguments did not fully convince the union ranks. Barely a month after his election, Luca Visentini was suspended from his duties.

But even today, the fever does not drop. In any case, not with us, in Belgium. Marc Leemans, the president of the CSC, does not take off. “ Me, I was really perplexed and even scandalized by what happened,” begins the leader of the Christian union. ” Because Mr. Visentini admitted that he had money, in cash, in cash, and that he used a large part of this money to organize his election campaign. That a trade union leader, at the international or European level, needs funds to organize a campaign, in our opinion, it’s unheard of, and never experienced. At home, we believed perhaps, wrongly, that we were all the same a little more solid on this ground- there. So that was a big disappointment. ”

Even more directly, the president of the FGTB, Thierry Bodson, affirms that Luca Visentini simply bought his election. ” You should know that the CSI congress took place in Australia and that you had to be physically present to have the right to vote and the right to decide. So, obviously, from the moment you have the capacity to be able to allow certain trade union organizations which have little means to come and pay for their plane tickets to buy votes, there are no other definitions for this. So it is inadmissible.

Corruption money?

But did Luca Visentini somehow defend the interests of Qatar, in exchange for the money received from Fight Impunity? He categorically denies it.

“ I dispute all the accusations against me,” he defended himself before the General Council of the ITUC. ”  Nothing was asked of me in exchange for this money and no conditions were set for this donation. This donation was not related to any attempt at corruption, nor to influence my union position on Qatar or on any other questions.  ”

To fully understand Luca Visentini’s position on Qatar, one must first know the context. According to Belgian investigators, the emirate wanted to illegally influence the decisions of the European Parliament, in order to silence criticism of the abuses committed against migrant workers who came to build stadiums and infrastructure for the football World Cup. A highly sensitive subject for Qatar.

Far from being as critical as organizations for the defense of human rights, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, Luca Visentini prefers to welcome the labor law reforms undertaken by Qatar. ” There is still work to be done on the implementation of reforms, but Qatar must be considered a success story “, declared the Italian trade unionist last October after a visit to Doha when he was still general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. “The FIFA World Cup was undoubtedly an opportunity to accelerate change, and these reforms can set a good example to extend to all other countries that will host major sporting events in the future. 

Qatar, a success story. Really?

Luca Visentini’s position does not come out anywhere. It is just following the line of the International Trade Union Confederation. In June 2022, the Australian Sharan Burrow, who preceded Luca Visentini as the head of the CSI, was already praising the efforts of the emirate.

In a promotional video released by Qatar’s Labor Ministry, she said: ” To people who attack Qatar for its labor rights from outside the country, we say: go ahead and watch. Go see the change. The Kafala’s modern slavery system is dead. There are labor laws, there is progress. […] The compensation system is in place. Workers can get justice in Qatar.”

But not everyone shares this enthusiasm. Human rights defenders are much more cautious about Qatar. This is the case, for example, of Fair Square. This London-based NGO wrote a letter to the ITUC in November 2022, accusing him of not denouncing the serious abuses committed by the emirate.

An example: for James Lynch, co-director of Fair Square, the Kafala, this system that puts migrant workers at the mercy of their employers is not dead in Qatar. “ In 2020, there was a significant legal reform that, on paper at least, attacked Kafala. But the problem is that we have seen three years of extremely poor implementation, to the point that one can wonder if there was really an intention to put in place this reform. Yet the CSI never spoke about these questions and declared, on the contrary, that the Kafala was dead. had multiple reports of this. Anyone who works in the field knows this statement is false.

The International Trade Union Confederation would therefore tend to embellish the reforms carried out by Qatar. For the NGO Fair Square, this is really problematic because the CSI is a respectable institution that is listened to all over the world.

The FGTB and the CSC no longer want Visentini

Faced with the shock wave caused by the temporary arrest of Luca Visentini, the ITUC said it opposed all forms of corruption and took two initiatives. She has launched an independent audit to analyze the organization’s finances. And then she set up a special commission to investigate allegations of corruption within the ITUC. Their findings are expected in two weeks.

But for Luc Leemans of the CSC, it is already certain that Luca Visentini no longer has his place at the head of the CSI. ” The CSC was among the clearest organizations in terms of its expression of what happened. We said straight away that Mr. Visentini could not remain at the wheel of the organization and that we had to take decisions on the basis of well-founded elements as quickly as possible. […] A rotten fruit must be removed immediately because otherwise, the whole basket risks being destroyed. The trade union cause and the collective defense of workers throughout the world are so important that we have to be straight in our boots. ”

Like the CSC, the FGTB is also calling for the dismissal of Luca Visentini. And for Thierry Bodson, if necessary, other people will be excluded. ” The problem we are faced with is that the current team is a team that is heavily made up of those who previously had already worked with Ms. Burrow, the former general secretary of the ITUC, who can be blamed for a lack of transparency in previous years. So there is a modus operandi that needs to be changed. Maybe other people inside the leadership team need to be changed. “

Qatargate could therefore well cause new shocks in the upper echelons of global trade unionism. It remains to be seen whether the firmness of the Belgian trade unions is widely shared within the International Trade Union Confederation. We will see more clearly at the end of the meeting of the General Council of the ITUC scheduled for Brussels on Saturday 11 March.

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