Bayern Munich have hit back at an investigative report suggesting the club ignored Human Rights Watch warnings before entering into lucrative deal with Qatar Airways, saying “the opposite is the case.”
Qatar has been the subject of human rights investigations over abusive labour conditions for migrant construction workers, including in the building of stadiums and facilities for the 2022 World Cup.
Bayern Munich agreed a five-year deal with the state-owned Qatar Airways in February. But as revealed by Norwegian news website Josimar, they were aware of the potential for controversy and sought the advice of the German government before embarking on negotiations.
But Bayern denied any impropriety in a statement to ESPN FC’s Mark Lovell, writing: “Regular exchanges take place between Bayern Munich and representatives from society as well as NGO officials. For example, for a significant time Bayern has held open and confidential talks with Human Rights Watch’s European office in Brussels about the situation and developments in Qatar as well as the Arabian Gulf.
“It is therefore nonsense to suggest that Bayern Munich ignores human rights issues and the subject of workers conditions. The opposite is the case.
“Bayern has always declared that by being in Doha, they are representing sporting and business interests, but we also bring the message of global openness and freedom of living as well as sporting values, tolerance and fairness towards others. Bayern’s partners in Qatar know this, we discuss this with them and they know our convictions about workers and human rights. We are in dialogue with them about this.
“The United National labour organisation confirmed in November 2017 that Qatar is developing positively. As a result, they officially ended their investigation into guest workers living and working conditions in Qatar. The Qatari government signalled its readiness to phase out step by step the Kafala — the criticised labour law.”
According to Josimar, upon hearing from Bayern, chancellor Angela Merkel’s government tasked Human Rights Watch researchers about potential implications that could arise from a deal, and the group responded that one would pose “a serious risk to the club’s reputation.”
“Any agreement that involves the use of Bayern Munich’s brand and global reach to either directly or indirectly promote the image of Qatar will inevitably lead to accusations… that it is involved in an exercise in reputation laundering,” the memo reportedly said.
The memo also suggested a statement to use and other advice if Bayern wanted to proceed, but these suggestions were ignored, according to the Josimar report.
The deal with Qatar Airways, which ends Bayern’s long-standing partnership with German carrier Lufthansa, is not Bayern’s first tie to the Gulf nation.
For the last eight years, Bayern have begun preparations for the second half of the Bundesliga season by holding winter training camps in Qatar — including a trip in January this year to the Aspire Academy.
Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge claimed ahead of the latest trip that “thanks to football, conditions for workers in Qatar have improved,” but Bayern fans standing in the Southern Terrace “Sudkurve” have long been critical of the club’s close ties to Qatar, regularly displaying banners to express their displeasure.
In January, the ultras group Munich’s Red Pride unfurled a banner in which Rummenigge’s words had been placed between inverted commas, and another in which the director’s eyes had been replaced by two giant tomatoes. “Having tomatoes in front of one’s eyes” is a German saying for being unable to spot the blindingly obvious.
Meanwhile, Hamad International Airport in Doha is Bayern Munich’s shirtsleeve sponsor for Bundesliga games this season. HIA is operated by Qatar Airways, which is fully owned by the Qatari government and has also been the target of labour investigations.
The German champions had already signed a long-term sponsorship with the Qatari airport in 2016, when it became a platinum club partner — the highest available package after main sponsors and major shareholders Telekom, Adidas, Audi and Allianz.
Qatar owns 14.6 percent in German car manufacturer Volkswagen, which in turn holds stakes in Bayern through its subsidiary Audi.
In 2016, the club defended their close ties to Qatar, insisting a diplomatic crisis between the 2022 World Cup host nation and its neighbours was a matter for the German government.
Qatar Airways is also one of the major sponsors of this summer’s World Cup in Russia and one of seven official FIFA partners. In response to Josimar’s report on Hamad International Airport, FIFA responded: “In accordance with our principles on human rights, FIFA takes its responsibility regarding human rights very seriously. Violations of workers’ rights are not conducive to our values.
“FIFA are proactive and carry out thorough evaluations before entering into commercial deals, in order to minimise the risk of human rights violations. This is the first time we have been confronted with specific statements regarding Hamad International, and we will contact our local and international partners to check the veracity of these claims.”
ESPN FC’s Bayern Munich correspondent Mark Lovell contributed to this report.