In the Dec 5th edition of the Windsor Star, Craig Pearson reported that Mayor Drew Dilkens was in Doha, Qatar to attend the FINA swim championship. Intimating sensitivity to long range travel with little benefit for the citizens of Windsor, the mayor defended his trip saying: “This event just didn’t line up nicely with the political schedule, that’s the honest truth of it…”. He continued to defend the trip saying, “[f]lying to the Middle East on the second day on the job wasn’t something I hoped to do. But it’s something we already committed to as a council, and being the mayor I had to follow through on the commitment. And it’s something I believe in.”
Mr. Dilkens was in Qatar because Windsor will host the 2016 FINA World Swimming Championships. Along for the ride were Windsor CAO Helga Reidel and chief of staff Norma Coleman. According to Pearson, the junket cost between $20,000 and $30,000, and are “part of the expenses the previous council approved in order for the city to host the $10-million event…” To further back up the necessity of the trip, Pearson quotes Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor who reasoned that “…given Windsor won the bid for the games, it’s perfectly reasonable to have municipal representatives go to the current games because it helps the planning for when we host the games. It’s very common.” But Qatar is also in the news also because of the extensive exploitation of foreign workers in that country who are building the venues for the 2022 FIFA World Cup of soccer. Since I recently viewed an Al Jazeera documentary on the plight of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar, I was moved to reflect on the broader implications of mayor Dilkens’ trip regarding exploited labour and mega sports events.
The FINA event is possible in Windsor because of the downtown aquatic centre and the planned construction of a $6.5 million warm-up pool at the WFCU arena. These facilities likely cannot sustain themselves by local usage alone. The city will have to shop for events like FINA for the supposed spin-off economic benefits needed to offset the millions spent to build the venues. This strategy takes away from other social spending while asking Windsorites to trust that sporting events are useful for economic recovery.
Back in 2010 I was a member of a citizens group who challenged the Windsor aquatic centre proposal on the grounds that it was wrong to build the new centre on the backs of people in marginalized neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood assets such as Waterworld and the Sandwich Community Centre are closed (the gym at Waterworld still functions for the time being), the pool at the YMCA is closed (an indirect and predicted outcome of the construction of the downtown aquatic centre), and Adie Knox will be at risk of closure for the foreseeable future. A city the modest size of Windsor struggling to meet the social needs of citizens needed to close these facilities in order to meet the operating expenses of the new aquatic centre. I and many others thought that was wrong. The marginalization of the largely immigrant populations in Glengarry and Sandwich to build a pool so suburban kids could practice for swim meets mirror what happens with global mega sporting events. And this brings us to what we are complicit in regarding FINA and its facilities in Qatar of which the mayor-elect was so effusive.
There’s a lot wrong with global mega-sporting events: the destruction of neighbourhoods, forced relocation of politically disempowered citizens, and the linkage of sport and nationalistic militarism. FINA doesn’t rank with FIFA World Cup soccer and Windsor sport venues don’t rank with global attractions such as the Olympics and World Cup soccer. However, the Windsor FINA event is a small scale version of the mega events. The 2016 Windsor FINA event will benefit a small percent of the local population: the small local swim contingent, marketing firms, banks and developers, and so on. We’ll be assured by a compliant media that it will have positive ripple effects throughout the local economy. Yet, wages are at subsistence levels with few workers at the aquatic centre and WFCU arena venues, and the financial bulge in the local economy will likely be fleeting. As well, the past city council rammed through a motion (with the usual cover by the Windsor Star editorial board) to build a new $6.5 million warm-up pool at the WFCU arena for the 2016 FINA event. That pool is supposed to make up for the loss of other east-end pools as well, but the plan was contested by local citizens. So the social fabric of this city has been stretched, let’s say, by a desire to ‘cash in’ on smaller scale global sports events at the expense of marginalized immigrant communities, and quite possibly the future financial stability of the city.
Mayor Dilkens praised the Qatar aquatic facility perhaps unaware that it was built by exploited migrant workers for the 2006 Asian Games. James Parrack is Eurosport’s swimming commentator, and he pointed out in his Day 2 commentary of the 2014 FINA swim championships that he (and our mayor) sat in “…a world championship swimming event in the middle of the desert in yet another enormous facility built by migrant workers, where two 50m pools at the Hamad Aquatic Centre sit next door to another 50m pool in the mind bending Aspire Centre…” Parrack goes on to add that perhaps “[w]ith the wealth in the region there is a compelling story to be told of how sport can play a central role in the health and well-being of its next generation.” He doesn’t say which generation he means since 94% of the labour force in Qatar is migrant labour. Certainly sport has always played a central role in contributing to the well-being of next generations, but not on the backs of exploited workers and racialized inner city neighbourhoods.
Further, in a May 2014 Guardian article, Owen Gibson reported that “…hundreds of migrant workers are dying in Qatar each year”, and since being awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup, “…human rights groups have urged the Qatari government to make a simple, clear statement of intent by abolishing the controversial exit visa system that gives employers ultimate power over their workers and prevents workers from leaving the country without consent.” Gibson describes the internal conflict in Qatar on how to resolve what is arguably a huge human rights crisis that pits Qatari political factions against each other. As well, sending nations are left to hope for the best since even the meager wages their citizens make in Qatar mean a lot for the national economy of a country like Nepal. Once on the exploitation bandwagon a vicious cycle begins.
Mr. Dilkens is the mayor of a medium size city unique in the country. Still a manufacturing powerhouse at the most important border junction on the continent, Windsor is tied to the global economy like few others its size. It’s bad enough that Windsor mayors travel for all the wrong reasons, but to remain ignorant of the levels of human exploitation, while gushing about underwater cameras in competitive pools in the countries they travel to, must be spotlighted. Surely Mayor Dilkens must be aware that Windsor/Essex is home to many thousands of migrant and temporary foreign workers who labour far from home in exploitative circumstances. Would he care that in early November three migrant workers – a live-in caregiver, a farm worker, and a restaurant worker spoke in Windsor and other Ontario cities about their struggles, their lack of rights and the laws that impact them? Is he aware, that, according to Harsha Walia, in Canada “[m]igrant workers are indentured to a single employer, don’t have guaranteed access to social services or labour protections despite paying into them, work long hours and are often paid less than minimum wage, and are not granted permanent residency upon arrival”?
When we hear that Canada and Windsor/Essex must integrate into the global economy, what does that really mean? If we listen and look we’ll see the answers in Qatar and in our own backyard. The questions of labour mobility, wages, rights, and citizenship will become increasingly key issues in Windsor Essex. Actually they are right now, but they fly under the radar of polite discussion and the local corporate media because these questions are uncomfortable to the status quo leaders in the area. Instead, it seems we will continue to be served with circuses and parades because that’s easier to deal with than the reality of the exploitative global economy of which we are a part.
This country could ensure that migrant and temporary foreign workers have a clear path to citizenship so they can partake in the full social life of the country with all the rights and privileges the rest of us enjoy. This country can and should be a justice leader, and to do this requires that all of us, including elected officials, speak out when they see injustice.
The brutal reality is that the global economy as we know it cannot function without two things: cheap oil and cheap labour. Whether it’s low wage Chinese factory workers – millions who are internal migrant workers – pumping out smartphones, or growing food in Windsor/Essex, low wage, racialized, precarious work is the norm.
In contrast to an exploitative global economy where capital flows freely and local communities compete for corporate largesse (ie: factory jobs) and workers endure indentureship, Windsor could declare itself a Living Wage zone (examples here & here) while creating a fund that could generate the conditions for local community production using digital fabricators, as an example. We could also take the national lead in ensuring migrant and temporary foreign workers attain citizenship. These two ideas would be our ongoing contribution to making the world a more just place, arguably the reason why we are on this planet in the first place. We work in a global economy but we live in local communities. The big question of our times is how can we do both without reverting to some high-tech feudal nightmare?
Global sporting events lacking a social justice vision do not make lives better for working people or communities. The Windsor FINA event will only marginally and fleetingly benefit citizens. Social spending on income support and affordable housing by contrast provide lasting benefits for decades. Is expecting even local mayors to recognize to some degree the social, political, and economic realities of the global economy too much to ask? Not today; not while global inequality and war are on the rise and hundreds of millions of workers are forced into indentureship.
Mayor Dilkens could make a unique mark for himself by setting in motion deliberative citizens’ dialogue sessions in Windsor/Essex about how this city fits into the global economic reality, and we could model that on Simon Fraser University’s Canada’s World project. (More here)