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“Human rights present an opportunity for player unions”

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Francis Awaritefe is the chair of Professional Footballers Australia and a FIFPRO Board Member. On the occasion of International Labour Day, the former Socceroo turned lawyer shares his opinion on the rights of professional footballers.

In your opinion, what are the most fundamental labour rights of a professional football player?

As I see it, the fundamental rights of a professional footballer, in general, span three distinct areas - labour rights, personal rights and legal rights.

First, the labour rights of players consist of their right to freedom of association in joining whatever associations or unions of their choosing to represent and protect their interests. The right to collectively bargain for fair pay and working conditions, including the right to negotiate a fair share of the revenue and economic activity which the player has helped to generate. Players under the employment relationship have the right to the protection of their status as workers or employees and contractual stability and contractual security.

Second, is the personal rights. These include the right to health & safety, privacy and family life. Equally important is the protection of personal data, the protection of name, image, likeness and performance, which may not be commercially exploited without the informed consent of the player, individually or collectively.

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Last, is the player legal rights, which address that the player is entitled to due diligence and the presumption of innocence before the law, including an expeditious grievance mechanism for resolving disputes in accord with the principle of equality of representation, in the appointment of a panel or arbitral body.

These rights are fundamental, because, as long as sport governing bodies have existed, they have regulated the employment relationship with players under the notions of ‘autonomy of sport’ or under European Union law, the ‘specificity of sport’. These notions in reality, are used in ways which often result in the abuse of the rights of players. Until recently, FIFA’s global player employment regulatory regime was such, that it denied, and in some respects continues to deny fundamental rights which other citizens take for granted, such as the right to freedom of association, the right to collectively bargain in accordance with internationally recognised human rights.

The challenges of fundamental labour rights are also evident in FIFA member countries, where the legal system, clubs and national football associations deny the right to freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain - effectively denying professional footballers a voice in shaping their employment conditions.

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What can you tell us about the respect from the world of football for these fundamental labour rights you mentioned?

The extent to which fundamental rights of players are respected within global football varies according to a number of factors, including, the continent/region, economic strength of the national association, leagues & clubs in the region, the domestic legal system, and the existence and strength of player unions on the ground. As a result of these factors there are challenges in some countries and regions of the world with professional footballers being able to exercise their fundamental rights.

How do you envision to change this and do players or unions have a role in this?

In 2016, FIFA made a statutory commitment to respect human rights of players in accordance with internationally recognised human rights in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). The UNGP, through its ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework, provides the means for FIFA and its member associations, including clubs and leagues to meet its obligations to respect players’ fundamental rights including labour rights, personal and legal rights.

The adoption of the UNGP’s by FIFA is a potential game changer for fundamental player rights, if player unions can see the opportunity it presents. This is evident in the role it played in the 2019 release of Bahraini footballer, refugee, and human rights defender Hakeem Al-Araibi, who was held in Thailand for over 70 days pending an application to be refouled to Bahrain. This is also evident in the role FIFA’s human rights commitment is now playing in relation to player activism in the service of promoting human rights in regard to migrant workers building World Cup infrastructure in Qatar and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter global campaign against racism and social injustice.

FIFA’s commitment to respect human rights is also a significant opportunity for player associations to reach an agreement with their respective leagues and national associations to meet their statutory obligations to respect human rights - including the labour, personal and legal rights of professional footballers in their jurisdiction. This is now the work which must be done urgently by all football player unions globally.

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Francis Awaritefe with Craig Foster together in Thailand to support Hakeem Al-Araibi

Having been a professional footballer yourself and now holding prominent governance positions, can you explain to us what it means to be a professional footballer in the current men’s and women’s football industries?

Yes, the public perception of professional footballers can be that of wealthy, carefree young men who are paid extreme amounts of money for playing football. Fans, even administrators, sometimes conclude the prodigious talent of a footballer is ‘god given’ - not the outcome of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, resilience and other universally admired traits such as teamwork, respect and a deep love for football.
The career of a professional footballer, by nature, is short-term and precarious - a career where many set out on the journey to become a professional footballer but few reach the summit.

FIFPRO published a global employment report which surveyed 14,000 players in Europe, the Americas and Africa in 2016. The stark reality is that outside the global elite, the report showed that 45% of those surveyed earned less than $USD1,000 per month. The net median salary was between $USD1,000 and $USD2,000 per month.

And FIFPRO’s 2020 Raising Our Game report stated that financial compensation for female players is generally not enough to make a decent living.

In addition, there is widespread abuse of players and players’ contractual rights.

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National women’s football players are some of the most well-recognised and popular athletes in Australia. Can you explain to us their progression into professional footballers in the current football industry and how the Union (Professional Footballers Australia) supported and elevated the industry?

The Australian women’s national football team “The Matildas” are arguably the most high profile and popular sporting national team in Australia.

A catalyst for the enviable position The Matildas find themselves in today, was the player strike in 2015. The fundamental rights of The Matildas to join Professional Footballers Australia, organise, and collectively bargain for their remuneration, conditions and key decisions which affect their careers was critical, as they were able to negotiate the terms and conditions for which they would play for the national team, and crucially, to be represented by persons or organisations of their choice - whereas historically key decisions had been taken without their agreement.

The outcomes of the player strike in 2015 set the platform for a landmark equal pay deal in 2019