With the ITUC General Council due to meet tomorrow, answers are urgently needed to the deeper issues raised by this affair.
The ITUC General Council held an extraordinary meeting on 21 December and decided to suspend Luca Visentini as ITUC General Secretary until it meets on 11 March when it will give further consideration to this matter. This in no way implies any presumption of guilt.
In a world of instant communication and media pressure to react quickly against any allegations, the International Trade Union Confederation takes its time. Apparently, it needs until March to decide whether there is any reason to doubt the integrity of its newly-elected general secretary.
The rumour mill is meanwhile running overtime and the risks of massive moral damage to the entire labour movement grow by the day. What we know is that Visentini took up to €50,000 in cash from an Italian foundation which apparently received money from Qatari and Moroccan sources.
From public sources we also know the following. On December 9th Visentini was arrested by the Belgian police as part of a corruption investigation and released after 48 hours. In an interview with la Repubblica published four days later, he said he was ‘involved in Qatargate only because I participated in cultural activities of an NGO recognised by the EU Parliament’. He went on:
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I have provided all the necessary information [to the Belgian prosecutors] and I have also clarified that my positions towards Qatar have never been influenced by anyone. I have said on several occasions that the country had not solved its human rights problems. I condemn any form of corruption.
In another article published on December 15th he emphasised:
I’m innocent … I’m against any form of corruption, I’m not corrupt myself and I have the reputation and the interest of the ITUC as my highest concern.
On December 19th it was reported that Antonio Panzeri, head of the NGO Fight Impunity, had on October 10th handed to Visentini envelopes on which Santa Claus was depicted. The envelopes were stuffed with cash. The conversation was recorded by the police and Panzeri is quoted saying to Visentini: ‘We seem like those guys from Ocean’s Eleven.’
Following this revelation, Visentini admitted he had taken approximately €50,000 in cash from the NGO:
I accepted this donation in cash because of the quality of the donor and its non-profit character. I was not asked, neither did I ask anything in exchange for the money and no conditions whatsoever were set for this donation. This donation was not connected to any attempt of corruption, nor to influence my trade union position on Qatar or on any other issues. I openly reject any possible allegations in this respect as being totally untrue.
Visentini claims that he used the money to ‘reimburse some of the costs incurred to finance my campaign for the ITUC congress’, where he was elected in November. He also claims to have ‘transferred the sum to the ITUC solidarity fund in order to pay for the union’s travel costs’ to Melbourne. Apparently, Visentini personally sponsored the participation of some delegates in the ITUC congress by making a contribution to the fund.
This raises some basic questions. Can an NGO registered as a non-profit organisation give up to €50,000 in cash to an individual without any conditions? Is it acceptable to the ITUC that a third party contributed to the election campaign of its incoming general secretary? What were the ‘cultural activities’ of the foundation in which Visentini participated and to what extent do they touch on ITUC policies or activities? If the foundation money he received was ultimately Qatari money, why was it given? Did the Qatari authorities see a need to invest in the continuity of ITUC policy vis-à-vis Qatar?
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Currently, it is impossible to get answers to these questions from public sources. For the international labour movement, however, it is of the utmost importance to show that no one except Visentini is in any way involved with Fight Impunity and that neither the ITUC nor any individual trade unionist has received any support from Qatari sources.
The problems for the international labour movement are however not limited to possible individual failings. How can there be so little substantive political debate within the international trade union movement? How could the ITUC celebrate all kinds of successes for the labour movement in Melbourne when in reality it is getting weaker nearly everywhere?
Why has there been so little debate in the labour movement about the fundamental change in the ITUC position on Qatar—from the harshest criticism to praising Qatar to the skies? How can fundamentally different assessments by the International Labour Organization and the ITUC, on the one hand, and those of labour-friendly campaigning and civil-rights organisations or national labour organisations such as the British Trade Union Congress, on the other, fail to trigger a debate within the ITUC?
Addressing these challenges requires, first and foremost, a leadership whose integrity is beyond doubt. In that sense the ITUC General Council’s decision to have a thorough investigation into the election of Visentini, and any third-party money related to that, can only be the start to addressing the deeper structural and political issues.
In this affair no one is better placed to dispel any doubt about the integrity of the ITUC than its former general secretary, Sharan Burrow. Given the recent developments, her comments on Qatar are now seen, rightly or wrongly, in a different light and the labour movement needs to know whether she was aware that her successor, whom she strongly supported, was using third-party money to win the election.
I therefore asked Burrow (whom I have known for more than 20 years) whether she would be available for a video interview or whether she could respond in writing to some questions. Among others I raised these with her:
- In an open letter to you the NGO Fair Square accused the ITUC of exaggerating the progress made by Qatar and urged the ITUC ‘to refrain from public statements that misrepresent the situation in Qatar’. The attachments of the letter make detailed reference to the persistence in practice of the kafala system, unresolved health-and-safety issues, the deaths of migrant workers, discrimination against domestic workers etc. Additionally, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the British TUC and BWI have been far more critical about workers’ rights in Qatar than the ITUC. Has the ITUC exaggerated the positive developments in Qatar? Why has the ITUC not insisted on freedom of association as a non-negotiable minimum for migrant workers in Qatar? Can a government that denies these fundamental rights be a ‘valuable friend’ of the ITUC?
- Did you know that Visentini had received money from ‘Fight Impunity’ to finance his election campaign?
- Did you know that Visentini made a personal cash contribution to the ITUC solidarity fund?
- Did you know as general secretary to whom personally at the ITUC Visentini made the cash payment?
- Who decided how to spend the funds and were the members of the ITUC Executive Board informed about the payments of Visentini to the solidarity fund in the run-up to his election as general secretary?
Burrow responded that she preferred to refrain from any public comment during the process. For the labour movement, however, these questions urgently require answers.