Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup was followed by a series of controversies—the most significant has been the issues surrounding human rights for construction workers. The drastically high number of worker deaths in Qatar has understandably overshadowed the unscrupulous actions of private construction companies in the build up to this summer’s tournament in Russia.
A country without a conscience
The construction process for the Qatari World Cup is heavily reliant on the current 1.4 million migrant workers (more than half the population) as well as the estimated 500 thousand more that will be needed before the competition starts.
Figures made public in 2015 revealed that around 1200 workers had died (see link for comparisons) in the construction process since the country was awarded the position of host in 2010. It has since been estimated by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that at least 4000 workers will lose their lives before a ball is even kicked in the 2022 World Cup. These numbers are unprecedented.
The Kafala system
“Kafala” means sponsorship in Arabic and when used in this context, it refers to the dependency of a migrant on their ‘sponsor’. The only way a migrant laborer can be allowed to work in Qatar is by obtaining a sponsor and this is more often than not their employer. Without their employer’s permission, workers cannot quit or change their jobs nor can they leave the country.
This has led to a system of modern day slavery in Gulf countries and the imbalance of power has led to the unprecedented number of fatalities during the construction period. It has been reported by diplomatic sources that the embassies of Nepal, India and other suppliers of migrant laborers have been urged to play down the situation by Qatari officials who threaten to halt the flow of remittances if they do not comply.
In essence, the Qatari version of the competition we all know and love is being built on abuse, oppression and death. It seems necessary to draw a comparison with this year’s edition in Russia where the construction process has also been run on corruption.
A shift in temperature but not in approach
Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 42 Russian and migrant workers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad in 2016 with their findings being published last year. There are countless examples of unpaid workers and migrant laborers working for cash (even then the amount is not guaranteed).
Whilst in Qatar laborers are working full days in dangerous heat, in Russia it’s the opposite as some have been reportedly working in –25 degrees Celsius for long periods. While the reported numbers of fatalities are drastically lower than in Qatar—at least 17—the evidence of abuse and mistreatment are similar.
The major issue surrounds big construction companies who collect vulnerable migrant workers without offering them contracts. This method is unlawful and allows the companies to pay what they like if anything at all. On top of this, if a worker asks for his wages he is often intimidated or simply sent home and blocked from working.
The Human Rights Watch research consultant was also a victim of intimidation as he was arrested when questioning workers outside of the Volgograd Arena. The officials knew his name, suggesting he was under surveillance and went on to accuse him of attempting to sabotage the World Cup. He was released after three hours.
North Koreans in Russia
Over a hundred North Korean workers were brought in by construction companies to help build the Saint Petersburg Stadium. An undercover reporter revealed that the Koreans worked longer hours than anyone else before returning to lines of shipping containers where they slept.
They carried plastic buckets with them to be filled with drinking water before returning to their barbed wire surrounded enclosure. The use of North Korean workers is controversial due to the exploitation they are subjected to by their oppressive state.
Up to 90% of their pay is taken from them by the state and they are under constant surveillance at all times. North Koreans are sent by the DPRK government on long term contracts to earn money for the regime rather than for themselves, another form of modern day slavery.
This kind of employment is something few would associate with the World Cup. It should be nowhere near such a prestigious global tournament.
The response from FIFA
Both Russia and Qatar were successful in their respective World Cup bids before FIFA announced in May 2016 that human rights requirements would be part of the consultation and bid process in future. This regulation will be in place for the 2026 World Cup bidding process. As well as this, an independent Human Rights Advisory Board was set up last year; a long-awaited move but positive nevertheless.
Quarterly visits are now conducted to each World Cup stadium to assess the working conditions but these are announced in advance and do not include other forms of infrastructure that are related to the tournament. There is also a lack of transparency—for example many HRW interviewees had no knowledge of any monitoring of conditions despite the promises made by FIFA.
The future of the World Cup
We enjoyed the color of Brazil despite the protests and we are set to enjoy Russia and Qatar as well but to ignore the human rights issues that surround these events would be wrong.
It is necessary for football tournaments, fans and institutions alike to recognize the wider issues of corporate exploitation and law-breaking that are currently tainting a sport that traditionally supports and is supported by passionate local communities.
An increase in awareness of these problems will hopefully lead to a more sustainable and beneficial 2026 World Cup, but there is still time to improve the conditions for those currently suffering in Qatar.