16th July 2018

Qatar 2022 human rights violations: swept under the carpet?

Football’s governing body, the Federation International de Football Association (FIFA), has continually failed to exert pressure on the Qatari government to improve labour and living conditions at building projects related to the 2022 World Cup. Migrant workers are continually subjected to abuse in Qatar’s construction industry. In 2016, Amnesty International reported on the ongoing struggles, which include unpaid wages, dangerous working conditions, and appalling living arrangements. 

While FIFA has stated that they have been working closely with Qatari officials, as well as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), to tighten measures over worker treatment, they have been repeatedly accused of not doing enough, with many arguing that they should remove Qatar’s right to host the tournament. Yet, with Qatari money embedded in many aspects of football, FIFA’s reluctance over decisive action may not come as a surprise.

Making up almost 90% of Qatar’s 2.6 million population, most migrant workers hail from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines. The reality for these workers is that fundamental rights and freedom do not exist. The draconian ‘kafala’ system still in practice dictates that foreign workers are essentially owned by their employers. They can confiscate passports and have total control over conditions of employment and wages.

Moreover, most workers come through recruitment agencies and are forced to borrow money or put up their possessions as collateral to pay a fee of anywhere between US$500 to $2,000 (€430 to €1,300). This is despite international law, and ILO Convention 151, expressly forbidding this practice. 

These agencies can deceive workers and promise lucrative contracts and high wages that are not realised. The Guardian reported how workers are exploited by agents at home and employers in Qatar, noting one example where an Indian worker was promised £400 per month but ended up only receiving just over half. Once in Qatar, workers come to face a sobering reality where the terms of the original contract have been drastically altered or completely re-written, the promised wage much lower, and they find themselves indentured to the employer for the money they’ve had to borrow to pay the recruitment fee.

Since Qatar’s successful 2010 bid to host the World Cup, almost 1,800 foreign workers have died in the course of three years, throughout 2011 to 2013, according to a feature by the BBC. This translates to about 600 deaths per year. 

Qatar’s track record on human rights was well known. Yet despite this fact, its bid was emphatically supported by then FIFA President, Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter. The wide-reaching corruption and bribery scandal which ensued at FIFA led to his demise and eventual eight year ban from the governing body.

Consequently, the Qatar World Cup bidding process has been the subject of multiple international criminal investigations by Swiss and American authorities into allegations that the country bribed its way into hosting the sporting event. The international investigation has followed the trail of Qatari money that is deeply embedded in investments in British, French, and other European commercial sectors, media, and sports platforms. The Independent went on record detailing that former French President Nicholas Sarkozy could face possible criminal charges for alleged proceeds received from deals negotiated at the time of the bid, as well as the sale of Ligue 1 club Paris St. Germain to a Qatari investment firm.

This could explain why FIFA and other governing bodies have been reluctant to deal with the Qatar situation. The soft-power that Qatar has continually exercised over the years, through a massive influx of cash into world football competitions and European investments, has made it almost untouchable. 

Corruption scandal notwithstanding, once FIFA takes its cut, revenues generated by the World Cup flow back into the game via Member Associations throughout Europe and the world. The UEFA Champions League, Europa Cup, English Premier League and French Ligue 1, to name a few, are all heavily supported by Qatari money. Despite rumours from Saudi Arabia’s sports minister at the beginning of this year about Qatar losing its hosting rights, FIFA said that Qatar will not be stripped of the World Cup and will host the tournament in 2022, via a statement made to the media in February.

As football fans, we’d like to think that the ‘beautiful game’ is infallible and can do no wrong. Rich in history and heavily entrenched in the traditions of many countries, the World Cup is considered the ultimate showpiece of the game. It is clear that there is no tournament that holds the same place in the heart of football fans.

Football was described by the great former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly as “not just a matter of life and death, but much more serious than that”. The reality is that for migrant workers in Qatar, it is in fact a matter of life and death, so much so that even professional footballers around the world, specifically the Danish players association, have called for improved working conditions, which was previously covered in an article on The Sports Integrity Initiative.

The good news is that since then, the ILO’s Governing Body has recognised that Qatar has made progress. At its 331st Session, the ILO Governing Body welcomed Qatar’s commitment to ensuring fundamental principles and rights for its migrant workers, as well as working towards breaking the kafala system. 

As of March, of this year, the Qatari government has committed to implement a minimum wage, set at 750 riyals (£151) per month, as well as free accommodation, food and healthcare provided by the employers. The government has also promised to clamp down on passport confiscations and put an end to kafala, by employing workers through a contractual system.

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