The FIFA World Cup is the world’s most important sports event with millions of viewers worldwide, generating more than $5 billion from broadcast and advertising. However, this prominent international organisation has been criticised for its failure to consider human rights issues in certain host countries, including Brazil and Russia, and its hesitancy to exercise its influence to ameliorate the situation. In 2010 FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to the Gulf state of Qatar and the country began to undertake on immense construction developments, spending more than $200 billion to build stadiums and various other infrastructures necessary to host the event. In 2016, a report by Amnesty International asserted that FIFA has been ignoring the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar, too. The 80-page-long report was based on interviews with 234 male migrants working either in construction at the Khalifa Stadium, one of Qatar’s main sporting venues, or in landscaping at the Aspire Zone Complex. They identified more than 100 migrant workers employed both on the Khalifa Stadium and at the Aspire Zone who were being subjected to human rights abuses by the companies for which they worked. The overall picture is that one of the richest nations is taking advantage of some of the poorest, thus accommodating modern-day slavery while preparing for the world’s most popular sport tournament. In the conclusion of Amnesty’s report, it was stated that this is largely due to multiple failures from the side of the businesses and organisations responsible for the venue, and “unless there is respect for international human rights standards by all actors, the 2022 World Cup risks being built by an exploited workforce.” However, the Qatari government rejected Amnesty’s claims, asserting that they only examined four companies out of the more than 40 currently engaged on the Khalifa Stadium. In addition, in a letter sent to Amnesty dated 17th March, FIFA stated that they did not agree with the conclusion of the organisation, and it had taken no action to tackle human rights abuses of workers at World Cup sites.
Qatar has a population of two million, but only 10% are actually Qatari nationals; migrant workers comprise more than 90% of Qatar’s workforce. These low-paid migrants, mostly from countries in South Asia such as Nepal, continuously experience abuse and exploitation. Everyone who comes to Qatar seeking employment does so under kafala, a sponsorship system (where the employer is the sponsor), enabling their employers to exercise significant control over their lives. The workers need their sponsor’s permission to change jobs and leave the country. In practice, this enables employers to arbitrarily prevent their employees from leaving Qatar. Additionally, workers can become undocumented when employers report them to the authorities as having fled, or when they fail to renew annual ID cards of their workers. A lack of proper documentation leaves workers at risk of arrest and detention or deportation and further labour exploitation. The Amnesty report also stated that there is an urgent need to reform the kafala system, if Qatar seeks to execute the exploitation of the workforce. The sponsorship system results in many problems, and amongst the most frequently-reported facing migrant workers are dishonest recruitment practices indicating better conditions of work in Qatar than in their home country; compulsion to live in squalid conditions; employers denying them the exit visa they need to leave Qatar; late or non-payment of wages; employers not giving workers proper identity documents, leaving them exposed to arrest; and even sometimes forced labour. Furthermore, according to another report carried out by the Guardian (and based on documents obtained at the Nepalese embassy in Qatar), more than 40 Nepalese workers died at the aforementioned construction sites in just a few weeks around July 2013 as a result of heart failure or workplace accidents due to the poorly-regulated working conditions. According to their analysis, current construction practices will have resulted in over 4,000 deaths by the time of the 2022 event.
Sadly, the plight is similar in most of the countries in the Gulf region disposing of the same sponsorship system. There are over 15 million migrant workers today, including at least 3.5 million non-Gulf Arabs, 3.6 million Indians, 1.7 million Pakistanis, almost 1 million Bangladeshis, more than 700,000 Filipinos, and over 700,000 Sri Lankans. Migrant workers are engaged in every sector of development activity in the Gulf, and therefore contribute significantly to the economic growth of labour-receiving countries, especially because many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries experience labour shortage. Ironically, however, migrant workers are treated as a threat to national security by deporting ‘surplus’ emigrant workers, making the renewal of residence permits harder, and by propositioning a quota system to maximise the number of overseas workers. Meanwhile, migrants are often exploited by their corrupt employers. A change in the attitudes and policies of GCC countries is immediately required and long overdue — a change that not only acknowledges the economic benefits of hosting migrant workers, but that also identifies, reveres, and seeks to guarantee their rights.