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A case of blood sport

The World Cup’s mistreatment of migrant workers

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has long been infamous for its layered bureaucratic corruption; the association recently came into the spotlight again this summer when several senior FIFA officials were arrested for bribery, racketeering, fraud, and other charges, a lot of which were linked to the 2022 Qatar World Cup bid. The bid, which will require nine new stadiums to be built and three others to be renovated by 2020, is attracting a rapid inflow of migrant workers to support Qatar’s heavily criticized, labour-intensive, construction industry. A country which has never qualified to play in the international soccer tournament will now be hosting, and by default, qualifying, for the tournament in 2022.

Qatar’s unskilled labour force, mainly comprising individuals from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, resides in labour camps and has to work long hours in extreme desert weather. These expatriate construction workers are bound to their Qatari sponsors under the kafala system, which is an unfair contract that does not allow workers to change jobs or take vacation days to go back home. Foreign workers are not permitted to work in Qatar without a local sponsor, or kafeel, who then holds a considerable amount of power over the worker. The regulations are restrictive to the extent that migrant workers cannot get a driver’s license, open bank accounts, or even rent a home without the permission of their sponsor. On top of that, a lot of these workers are heavily indebted to their recruitment agencies – many have to pay up to $3,000 in fees just to land a labour job. These workers, many of whom are illiterate, do not anticipate any of these situations since they cannot read the terms of the kafala system when they sign up for it. Trapped overseas, the workers are not given the choice to return home, as their passports are seized and kept by the employer upon arrival.

An investigation by The Guardian conducted in 2014 revealed that 964 workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh had died while working and living in the Gulf state in 2012 and 2013. While this number is not solely linked to Qatar’s World Cup preparations, it is alarming enough to call for an investigation into the working conditions of a high-risk industry mostly supported by labour-intensive migrant workers preparing for the biggest consumer sport event of the world.

The issue of the work hours and living conditions of foreign workers in Qatar has been previously condemned multiple times, and in light of the recent scandal, the Gulf state appears unfazed by public pressure. Qatar previously rejected a recommendation from DLA Piper – a global law firm that provides human rights advice to multinational companies and governments – to investigate the deaths of construction workers and abolish the kafala system. The Qatari government has even denied that any migrant deaths have occurred in connection to the World Cup stadium. Despite the fact that Qatar has offered in the past to change its labour laws, history has shown that it takes scant effort toward progress.

Even FIFA sponsors Visa, Coca-Cola and Adidas, some of who have previously had their own issues with labour rights, have expressed concern about the poor working conditions involved in building World Cup venues in Qatar. FIFA statutes do not currently require the host country to provide legal security to construction workers or any other workers involved in the preparation of the World Cup. Despite being an organization whose objective is supposedly to promote “unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values,” FIFA does not have regulations in place that necessitate for host countries to impose ethical labour practices and standards of living.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of Qatar has recently established a Wage Protection System (WPS) that forces all employers to register with a bank to pay their employees or face penalties otherwise. While it goes without saying that ensuring timely payments to migrant workers and providing them with security is a matter of utmost urgency, the reform’s implementation date was pushed back from August 18 to November to allow companies more time to make the transition. Although a step in the right direction, this reform fails to address the discriminatory kafala system.
The 2022 World Cup has shed light on an alarming issue that plagues Qatar’s labour system and if FIFA will not take active measures to address the problems, then consumers and supporters of the event should. As fans of a sport which promotes unity and fairness, we have the responsibility to make conscious choices by not supporting organizations that perpetuate systems of oppression, social injustice, and corruption of the humanitarian spirit.