Over the past few months, with the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup fast approaching, international concerns over the host nation’s alleged mistreatment of its migrant workers have intensified. A key marker of these rising concerns came in March when an article from the Guardian on Qatar’s preparations raised a number of troubling practices which included worker exploitation, unpaid labor, and numerous unreported worker deaths. Increased international pressure on Qatar to address these issues has also become a social media phenomenon, with #notmyworldcup gaining thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram over the past couple of weeks.
These transgressions may be unsurprising considering the government of Qatar’s high ambitions for the world cup from the onset of the project. After being announced as the hosts of the 2022 world cup in 2010, Qatar began an intense preparation program which included building seven stadiums, new tourist and team accommodations, training facilities, transport systems (an entirely new metro-train transport system has been built), a new airport, and an entirely new city. Through these ambitious plans and its own rhetoric, the country has made it clear that it aims to exceed the standard expectations of host countries and make this world cup a historical spectacle. However, the burden of meeting these expectations has been largely shouldered by the country’s large population of migrant labourers who form the basis of the crews of the construction projects. Evidence has shown that many of their personal freedoms appear to have been sidelined, and in some cases entirely neglected, in order to prioritize the government’s objective of impressing the international community.
In his exposé piece for the Guardian, Pete Pattinson reported that an estimated 6500 migrant workers from South Asia—namely India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—have passed away since World Cup preparations began in 2010. This total amounts to around 12 deaths per week over the past decade. Perhaps more alarming is the high probability of the government records of the death toll being inaccurate, as they exclude migrants from other parts of the world like Southeast Asia and East Africa who also make up a significant portion of the immigrant labor force.
Indeed, the main causes of death have been roadside accidents, workplace accidents (many workers have fallen to their death), and suicide – all of which stem from the state’s inadequate protection of its migrant labourers. When they arrive in Qatar, South Asian workers have reported facing poor accommodations, high risk work environments, heavy discrimination, long hours in the extreme desert conditions (summer temperatures average 45 degrees celsius in Qatar), and extremely low wages — some workers have reported not receiving pay for months.
Most of these conditions are rooted in the ‘Kafala’ system which defines the labor relations of migrant workers in many Middle Eastern countries. Migrants coming into Qatar do so through a sponsor, often their future employer, who then becomes responsible for their workers’ visa and legal status. This effectively places migrants under direct legal control of their employers, making worker exploitation easy and common. Workers are not able to leave ongoing postings and find a new employer without permission from their current employer (a direct breach of the universal freedom to associate ILO labor right) and, before a law change in 2020 Qatari state workers also required a specific ‘exist visa’ to leave the country which was also granted by employers. On top of this, apart from international human rights organizations like Amnesty International, workers have no representative bodies to lobby for their rights or protections leaving them almost completely under the whims of Qatari employers. The International Trade Union Conference (ITUC) went as far as describing Qatar as ‘essentially a slave state’ because of this system.
Qatar has however publicly acknowledged its history with poor labor practices. Hassan Al Thawadi, the Secretary General of the ‘Supreme Committee of Delivery and legacy’ — the organizational body set up by the government of Qatar to oversee World Cup preparations — has said that his team has taken steps to increase workers’ protections and ensure greater transparency for the media. Other key figures, like the deputy Secretary General Nasser al Khater, have taken a different approach and denied many of the accusations made against them, insisting that there has been a strong international media bias against Qatar hosting the world cup from the start. Despite the Kafala system being technically banned in 2016, workers brought to Qatar to work on FIFA World Cup, and the low-skilled migrant labor force in general, are still far from having full workers rights and protection.
In response to demands by Amnesty to hold Qatar accountable for their treatment of their workers, FIFA has supported the Qatari government’s claim that the World Cup will ‘act as a catalyst for enhanced, sustainable and meaningful progress on workers’ welfare across Qatar. To ensure that the tournament proceeds, FIFA is ready to defend Qatar by painting the FIFA 2022 World Cup as an opportunity for the country to improve its labor rights. This is evidence of the emergence of a worrying counter narrative that justifies these labor malpractices.
Despite FIFA’s continued reluctance to act, human rights activists are still fighting to spread awareness on the labor rights that are being violated to build the World Cup. Criticism is becoming more widespread as fans grow more aware of the unethical practices behind the being conducted by the Qatari government.
Edited by Olivia Shan
Joel Sawmadal is in his second year at McGill University, where he studies Economics and Political Science. This is his first year as a Catalyst staff writer and his interests include economic development and politics in developing countries.