To soccer fans and players alike, there is no greater stage than the FIFA World Cup. More popular than the Olympic Games, the quadrennial competition features teams, fans, and passion from all over the globe. In 2022, the World Cup will be held in Qatar—the first time the tournament will take place in a Middle Eastern county.
A tiny peninsula that juts into the Persian Gulf, Qatar is the richest country per capita on earth. Being the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas, it won’t be difficult for Qatar to come up with the more than $200 billion needed to build stadiums hotels, highways and transportation systems in preparation for 2022. As of early last year, the government was reportedly spending $500 million per week on World Cup preparations. But many of the workers who are building for the tournament are stuck in a system full of human rights abuses that has left much of the world wondering whether Qatar deserves the honor of hosting such a grand tournament.
“No site in the world that has this level of construction,” said Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch. “And when you have that scale of construction, that scale of expenditure, you also—without reforms—will have a tremendous scale of abuses.”
Qatar relies on nearly two million migrant workers, or about 90% of the country’s population. About 800,000 of those workers are involved with World Cup preparations. Many of them live in cramped, unclean conditions and work in unsafe environments, including extreme summer heat. Often times, their pay—which many use to provide for their families back home in places like Nepal or India—is lower than promised, or even withheld. Above all this, they fall under a system of monitoring known as kafala.
Prevalent in much of the middle east, kafala is a way for countries to monitor their migrant workers, in part by requiring them to have an in-country sponsor (which, in Qatar, is often times their employer) who is responsible for their visa status, tying the legal residence of migrant workers to their employer. Kafala also requires migrant workers to obtain exit permits from their sponsors, giving employers the power to arbitrarily block their employees from leaving Qatar and returning to their home country—and making it impossible for workers to complain of abuse without fear of reprisal.
“The kafala system is a modern-day slavery system,” Worden said.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy is Qatar’s state-run group responsible for planning and building stadiums and infrastructure ahead of 2022. According to FIFA’s May 2017 report on human rights, The Supreme Committee has developed a comprehensive set of Workers’ Welfare Standards (WWS) based on international standards, and also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) which includes joint inspections on stadium sites. The Supreme Committee has announced reforms to human rights abuses—namely, abolishing the kafala system on more than one occasion.
“It’s not true that it’s abolished,” said Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch. “You can’t abolish something twice—you either abolish it or you don’t.”
“They’ve announced reforms that, if passed and implemented, would be an advance in ending the sponsorship system, including the exit visa, and it would also help ensure that workers aren’t subject to systematic exploitation by their employers. However, there has been a consistent problem with the implementation of these reforms, as you can see by the fact that they’ve announced reforms to the system more than once.”
In June 2017, FIFA announced a new human rights policy which includes “the monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for labor rights on stadium construction sites for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups in Russia and Qatar in collaboration with the Building and Woodworkers’ International.”
The new policy calls for reforms which have not yet been seen in Qatar, with the most obvious one being a reform to the sponsorship system. Many of the reforms regarding human rights are listed as being in the “ongoing” stage of development. Though FIFA has leverage to use against Qatar, it has yet to be seen whether it will use it to end the kafala system.
Sylvia Schenk, a German consultant for the international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills and a member of FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory Board, told The Politic that reforms such as ending the kafala system for good will take time, but that there have been significant improvements as of late for migrant workers in Qatar.
“For the World Cup stadiums and the infrastructure built directly for the World Cup, there has been a lot of improvement,” Schenk said. “But of course we have to wait. I’m not looking under the table of any minister of Qatar and know what he’s going to sign, and so on… I think there will still be a lot of improvement, but if you have a total change of the law, then companies working according to the laws for years—people used to having it in a specific system—maybe need some time to really adapt for that.”
In 2015, FIFA hired Harvard professor John Ruggie to draft a report that would strengthen FIFA’s approach to human rights. In that report, Ruggie said that “[t]he purpose of identifying human rights risks is to do something about them,” and attracted headlines by saying that FIFA should “consider suspending or terminating” its relationship with World Cup hosts who fail to fix human rights abuses.
“The big hope now is that not only there will be changes in Qatar, but that these changes will spill over to the other countries in the region,” Schenk said. “It’s always a question, whether we will give major sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympics only to countries with a very good human rights record already…But if you only say we take 10 or 15 countries and no more, then you will not have the possibility to really spread the message…And that’s why I think it’s so important to work in sport and to help sporting organizations like FIFA to use the potential they have to foster social change.”
Aside from the kafala system, other concerns remain for human rights advocates. Human Rights Watch issued a statement last September that called for investigations into migrant worker deaths—especially those related to the intense heat and humidity. Worden also pointed out that certain reforms have been implemented to benefit workers, but that they only apply to the 1.5 percent of the migrant workforce building the stadiums, and not the thousands of workers building infrastructure for the tournament.
“When you leave the world cup stadium, then you leave the protections of the system,” Worden said. “This is also not acceptable under human rights law or under FIFA’s own human rights policy.”
Todd Ruffner, an advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy, says that the World Cup is a good opportunity for groups like his to highlight issues like human rights.
“It provides us a platform to draw attention to a lot of these abuses and troubling things that otherwise might fly under the radar,” Ruffner said. “It’s an important opportunity for groups to take advantage of and I think one that maybe Qatar didn’t anticipate when they pursued the World Cup, that it would draw so much attention to some of these other things.”
If the 2022 World Cup is held in a Qatar that looks the same as the Qatar of today, it is a burden that both FIFA and the Qatari monarchy will bear.
“The post-mortem after a World Cup—regardless of the results of it—is if nothing else changes, to see what sort of toll is taken on a lot of these people that died during construction and the resources that were diverted to build stadiums instead of help people,” Ruffner said. “If it takes place in this current situation, I think it’d really be a huge missed opportunity and a disappointment.”