FIFA World Cup | Qatar Is Kicking Human Rights Out of Football

Although Qatar has thrown a few crumbs to its critics, fans at the FIFA World Cup will still be celebrating over the broken bodies and crushed hopes of hundreds of thousands of abused and underpaid foreign workers

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'Take them, use them and throw them away': It is on the backs of underpaid and abused foreign workers that the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is built, but the Gulf state is gambling that football fans will forget
'Take them, use them and throw them away': It is on the backs of underpaid and abused foreign workers that the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is built, but the Gulf state is gambling that football fans will forgetCredit: Hassan Ammar /AP

“FIFA and Qatar have failed migrant workers, who have been essential for the 2022 World Cup,” says Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But they can still provide compensation.”

The #PayUpFIFA campaign, launched by a coalition of human rights organizations in May 2022, calls on FIFA to set aside at least $440 million to invest in “redressing” migrant workers whose labor made football’s biggest event possible but who suffered from wildly unfair wages and abusive working conditions.

About three-quarters of football fans polled across 15 countries, along with 120 French parliamentarians, prominent former players and sponsors, support the proposal of allocating about 7 percent of the World Cup 2022’s estimated $6 billion revenues to migrant workers. It sends a message to football’s leadership that “people are united in their desire to see FIFA step up,” wrote Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Head of Economic and Social Justice.

“While we recognize Qatar’s progress and continue to urge the government to fully implement its labor reforms, we cannot turn a blind eye to the serious labor abuses that took place,” May Romanos, MENA Researcher at Amnesty International told me.

Compensation is “certainly something that we’re interested in progressing,” FIFA deputy secretary general Alasdair Bell told a Council of Europe session on October 13. Still, the football’s world governing body, which awarded the World Cup 2022 without requiring Qatar to guarantee or improve workers’ protections, did not respond to a request for a more detailed comment.

Since 2017, Qatar has reimbursed 49,000 migrant workers about $26 million of the recruitment fees that migration agents unlawfully forced them to pay to secure a job in the emirate. Also, a support fund active since 2020 has paid $164 million in compensation to 36,373 workers. This increased to over $320 million of unpaid wages and benefits until 30 September 2022.

According to Human Rights Watch, Qatar established this Workers’ Support Fund as a back-up resource for paying workers “if companies fail to comply with the Labor Dispute Resolution Committees’ ruling in a worker’s favor.”

But that is compensation for the past. Qatar did not pledge to compensate for future labor rights violations. On November 2, Qatar’s Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri rejected creating a remedy fund for harmed migrant workers and called it a "publicity stunt." The official said Qatar already paid hundreds of millions in compensation to workers, but did not specify if any independent oversight took place.

The Qatari government communication office did not respond to a request for comment, including questions about further labor reforms beyond World Cup 2022 and mechanisms in place to ensure the implementation of labor reforms after fans have left the country.

A migrant laborer paints The Pearl Monument, a sculpture depicting an open oyster shell with running water, on the corniche, overlooking the skyline of Doha, Qatar, in October.Credit: Nariman El-Mofty /AP

A decade of empty promises?

“Don’t be fooled; Qatar has not become a model of virtue overnight. The Emir of Qatar's entourage doesn’t give a damn about the fate of laborers. The dominant ethos is to take them, use them and throw them away,” a source familiar with Gulf governments’ strategic thinking and policymaking told me on condition of anonymity. “But they have internalized the fact that this issue damages their long-term ambition to showcase the country as a modern state.”

The primacy of appearances and PR over deep reforms was perfectly illustrated by a Reuters report exposing Qatar’s efforts to "make invisible" the cheap migrant labor that had made the tournament possible, via a large-scale eviction campaign kicked off less than a month before the start of World Cup 2022.

Qatari officials evicted thousands of migrant workers from more than a dozen buildings in the center of the capital, Doha, where soccer fans will stay during the tournament. Some of those were kicked out so abruptly they were given as little as two hours' notice to leave their residences and had no choice but to sleep rough down on the city’s pavements.

A migrant worker sleeps on a bench in front of Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar.Credit: Nariman El-Mofty /AP

So what reforms have been enacted? In 2020, Qatar granted most migrant workers the right to leave the country without their employer’s permission, but domestic workers still need to inform them beforehand. Qatar then largely dismantled its kafala system, a private sponsorship system that allows employers to exert tight control over their employees and is described by human rights groups as a conduit to modern day slavery.

That change allowed workers to change jobs freely, but in tandem, the number of rejections of requests by the Ministry of Labor to change jobs jumped about 17-fold between January and September 2022.

“Qatar noticed that kafala reforms are a public relations battleground, so it pushed forwards with them, but they fudged the implementation of it,” explains Nicholas McGeehan, co-director of FairSquare, a human rights advocacy organization which is part of the #PayUpFIFA campaign.

The Qatari government communication office claims its reforms are “genuine” and “long-lasting.” “We are really seeing movement in the right direction,” Max Tuñón, Head of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Qatar told me, acknowledging that despite “substantial changes” over the past five years, the United Nations agency still identifies “gaps in implementation.”

“The fact that 24,000 workers lodged complaints with the Ministry of Labor last year, I think, demonstrates that workers do have increased access to complaints mechanisms,” he added. But observers might point out that such a large number (which is unlikely to mirror the real state of labor abuse, bearing in mind the fear and intimidation of many migrant workers) is just as much a testament to the scale of the problem.

A girl poses in front of Qatar 2022 mascot La'eeb ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournamentCredit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV - AFP

Between June 1 and July 20, 2022, Qatar recorded 276 violations of its summer working hours directive, which forbids work outside between 10 A.M. and 3:30 P.M. and is aimed at protecting workers from the excruciating heat of the Gulf summer. That figure, too, has a double resonance: It highlights Qatar’s willingness to come forward with data that used to be kept away from public scrutiny, but it also sheds light on the scale of labor rights violations despite much-vaunted reforms.

The anonymous source said that the political will to move ahead with reforms is “real,” but the overriding priority is to progress at a pace that does not “trigger a rupture” which could threaten social and political stability. After all, abusing migrant workers has proved highly profitable for businesses, and shrinking the profitability of a myriad of companies owned directly or indirectly by prominent Qataris could undermine the Emir’s legitimacy within the country’s elites.

But the risk is also economical. “Launching reforms too early would have given contractors leverage to renegotiate World Cup 2022 deals, baking in a sticky surge in production cost that would spread throughout the Qatari economy well beyond the tournament,” the source added.

“It took Qatar so long to commit to agree to this reform process, which definitely came too late. For years we were met with denial of how widespread abuses are,” Romanos noticed.

Fans at a German football Bundesliga match display a banner calling to boycott the upcoming Qatar World CupCredit: WOLFGANG RATTAY/ REUTERS

'Everyone will have forgotten'

The ILO mission to Qatar anticipates work will continue beyond the World Cup 2022 and identifies three priorities: the full implementation of the kafala reform, the wage protection system – a system to monitor the process of salary payments – and the domestic workers' law.

The question is: Will Qatar feel compelled to implement labor reforms after fans have left, and once the controversies around the World Cup no longer attract media and celebrity attention? Qatar’s Ministry of Labor did not respond to a request for comment on how further labor reforms will be implemented.

Workers walk to the Lusail Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup stadiums, in Lusail, Qatar, in 2019.Credit: Hassan Ammar /AP

“So far, the implementation has been very patchy and weak. We all worry that after the World Cup things will stop moving forward or that some reforms will be reversed,” Romanos warned. A bright spot could be Qatar’s desire to host more global sporting events in an era where organizations are pressured to embrace the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Future global sporting events may have to commit to respecting these goals, which range from gender equality, clean water and reducing hunger to “peace, justice and strong institutions.”

Will fans remember whose poorly-paid labor made the World Cup 2022 possible? Some bet they won’t.

Qatar will “no longer be criticized for hosting” the World Cup 2022 once the football’s biggest event starts and fans’ teams start winning, former FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke told French newspaper Le Monde in October 2022.

Unlike the fans, bereaved Nepali families, whose relatives returned in coffins after succumbing to grim working conditions, will not forget Qatar's killing fields. For them, the World Cup 2022 has left an indelible mark in their life.

The former FIFA secretary general went on: “All this will be secondary,” he said about human rights in Qatar and the tournament’s environmental impact, adding: “I am sure that once the trophy is lifted on December 18, everyone will have forgotten.” He is channeling what is, indeed, a chillingly dismissive, inhumane but entirely likely scenario.

Sebastian Castelier is a journalist covering Gulf Arab states and labor migration. His work has appeared in various Middle Eastern and international media outlets. Twitter: @SCastelier

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