The pumping handshake before a roomful of international representatives appeared enthusiastic. Flashlights popped and applause rippled around Geneva’s Press club. Jim Boumelha, president of the International Union of Journalists and Mostefa Souaq, executive director of the Al Jazeera Media Network exuded satisfaction at a negotiation concluded (they are pictured above).
On the table before of them, the drying ink of their signatures marked the conclusion of a ‘framework agreement’ in which the Doha-headquartered broadcaster committed to media pluralism, human rights, journalistic professionalism as well as internationally accepted labour relations conventions.
Agreements of this kind – between multinational companies and international trades unions – are a relatively new concept; fewer than 100 exist worldwide, despite their being more than 80,000 international corporations. This is the first to be concluded with a global media employer.
The idea is that companies commit to respecting standards laid down by the International Labour Organisation in all the territories in which they operate. Clauses cover rights to negotiation, consultation or simple exchange of information between employers and workers on issues of common interest as well as to accepted notions of collective bargaining, dispute prevention and resolution, and respect for labour law.
Boumelha acknowledged that, for all the warm words, the test of this agreement will be what it delivers for journalists on the ground. AJMN recognises unions at its London centre, but not elsewhere. Adding to this list will be the priority for the IFJ’s affiliates.
Such an agreement presents challenges and risks for both sides.
For the IFJ there is concern that today’s conviviality will not convert into workplace improvements. The need for visible benefits is all the more pressing given the low esteem in which Qatar is held by much of the international trades union movement. Some may accuse Boumelha of handing the broadcaster, which is funded by the Qatari state, an unhelpful fig leaf of respectability. The shocking death toll on Qatar’s World Cup building sites has been the subject of widespread international condemnation. By the time Qatar hosts FIFA’s four-yearly spectacle in 2022, some predictions suggest that 7,000 workers will have perished constructing football stadiums there.
For AJMN the agreement could increase higher costs at a time when dramatically falling oil prices have squeezed the income of its sponsor government. Souag hopes, however, that along with initiatives like the Declaration On Journalists’ Safety and hosting the International Press Institute’s World Congress this March, it will help cement his networks’ reputation as a global news brand that deserves to stand alongside players like the BBC, AP and AFP.
Like much international work, the fanfare accorded to an agreement like this says more about its signatories’ aspirations than it guarantees outcomes. As Souag and Boumelha relaxed and chatted about when their paths might cross again, the baton passed to union negotiators in Doha, Washington and London. Their efforts probably won’t attract the photographers, but if today’s hopes are to be converted to realities, it is them that will make it happen.
Photograph © Tim Dawson