By: Michael Stuart
September 26, 2022
In less than two months, football fans from around the globe will converge upon the tiny Gulf state of Qatar to celebrate the kickoff of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Nearly one million people are expected to travel to the country to see their nation’s team perform on the world’s biggest stage, while a staggering number of five billion people are expected to watch the games from around the world. In 2010, the FIFA executive committee voted on Qatar to be the first Middle Eastern country to hold the tournament, defeating bids from the United States, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. However, the selection has been a controversial choice ever since. Allegations of corruption, bribery, and human rights abuse have plagued both Qatar and the FIFA organization for over a decade now, which has led to some critics describing the upcoming World Cup as “football’s greatest scandal.”
FIFA has been no stranger to controversy when determining tournament host sites. In response to accusations of bribery in awarding Russia and Qatar with the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, FIFA hired attorney Michael Garcia to investigate. Garcia spent 18 months compiling a 350-page report, but his findings were ultimately reduced by FIFA to 42 pages and the organization cleared itself of any wrongdoing in 2014. Investigations by governmental bodies, however, have yielded different conclusions. In May 2015, the United States Department of Justice charged nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives with racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. Since then the U.S. government has accused 45 people connected with FIFA of more than 90 crimes and exchanging over $200 million in bribes. The concerns that cloud this year’s tournament extend far beyond just the legitimacy of Qatar’s selection as host though, for the actual construction necessary to hold the global event has caused further exploitation of Qatar’s already mistreated migrant workers.
Over two million foreign laborers, mainly from South Asia, are being used to drastically transform the country’s infrastructure and service industry in preparation for the World Cup. Qatar, which is roughly the same size as the state of Connecticut, has relied on migrant labor over the past decade to build seven stadiums, a new airport, a new metro system, new roads, and nearly 100 new hotels to accommodate visitors arriving in November. While Qatari citizens have the highest per-capita income in the world, they make up less than 15% of the country’s inhabitants. The 2022 World Cup has been built upon the use of migrant workers, who represent 90% of the country’s workforce.
Concerns of human rights activists regarding the foreign laborers In Qatar stem from the nation’s use of the kafala system. The kafala, or sponsorship, system defines the relationship between migrant workers and their sponsoring employer and gives companies and private citizens nearly total control over workers’ employment and immigration status. Under the system, employees must get permission from their sponsor in order to change occupations, terminate employment, or even leave the country. Workers are left vulnerable to exploitation as they are unable to enter a labor dispute process or join a union. Even if fleeing abuse, workers face the risk of imprisonment if they attempt to leave the workplace without permission, thus experts have argued that the kafala system represents a form of modern slavery.
Since the awarding of the World Cup in 2010, migrant workers in Qatar have experienced harsh living and working conditions. Many workers who seek to escape poverty and unemployment in countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, and India have had to pay recruitment fees ranging from USD $500 to $4300 to secure a job in the first place, leaving them in debt. In Qatar, the workers live in camps and dormitories that are often dirty, cramped, and unsafe. The camps are often located far away from the work site, and in some instances, eight to twelve men are sharing a single small room. Malcolm Bidali, a worker from Kenya who was fined and imprisoned in 2021 for speaking out against the human rights abuses, stated that he “actually had better living conditions in prison” than in the labor camps. Additionally, many workers have received false promises from recruiting agencies about their salary amounts and the type of work they will perform. Some workers have also reported that they have not been paid by their employer for up to seven months. When the laborers attempt to protest against their dire conditions and treatment, they are often arrested and risk deportation.
In 2021, the Guardian revealed that more than 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it was selected to host the tournament. The vast majority of deaths have been categorized as natural deaths, and there remains a lack of transparency from government officials because Qatar very rarely performs autopsies and has refused to investigate the deaths. Families of the deceased are often left with confusion about the circumstances of their loved one’s death and have been denied any forms of compensation.
As a result of pressures from activist groups and the International Labor Organization, Qatar has passed some labor reforms in recent years. In September 2020, the nation became the first Gulf state to allow all migrant workers to change employment before the end of their contracts without first obtaining their employer’s permission. Additionally, a nondiscriminatory monthly minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals (roughly USD $275) went into effect for workers in March 2021. Because the Doha region of Qatar reaches average temperatures nearing 100 degrees during the summer, the 2022 World Cup will be the first in the Northern Hemisphere to be played during November and December. This past spring, new labor regulations were enacted that banned work outdoors between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. from June to mid-September, and all work must stop any time the temperature rises above 89 degrees.
With Qatar slowly making some labor reform efforts, it is arguable that the hosting of the World Cup has brought new international attention to the abuses that migrant workers endure, ultimately enabling more systemic changes to occur in the country. U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buthe stated, “Qatar has made more progress with respect to human rights in the last four years than it has in the last four decades because it is hosting the World Cup.” The looming question, however, is if the improvements that have been made will continue after the World Cup is over. Isobel Archer of the Business & Human Rights Resource Center has said that her group has documented halting progress on workers’ rights and fears that will slow even further when FIFA packs up and goes home in late December.
The first game of the tournament is set to begin in just eight weeks, and the attention of the world will soon be on Qatar. Billions of people from around the globe will be watching the games played in stadiums and cities built by exploited migrant workers. Whether the 2022 World Cup truly serves as a catalyst for long-term change in the protection of migrant workers in Qatar will have to be determined long after the final whistle is blown.