Undoubtedly the most viewed, and high on the list of the world’s most unifying sporting events, the FIFA World Cup captures the attention of billions around the globe, and last year 32 nations participated, competing for the cup in Qatar. The announcement of Qatar as host of the 2022 World Cup put the country in the international spotlight, drawing criticisms against FIFA and the Qatari government concerning the unjust treatment of migrant workers, who were indispensable to carrying out the numerous construction projects.
Qatar, a country of a smaller size than the state of Connecticut, won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup in December of 2010. The scale of the event required Qatar to launch major construction projects— including new roads, stadiums, hotels, and transportation— in preparation for welcoming 1.5 million football fans. While the exact amount spent by the Qatari government on infrastructure since 2010 remains unclear, the estimates range from 200-300 billion dollars. (Foxman, Nair, 2022).
Let’s consider the fact that Qatar depends on a 2 million strong migrant workforce, which makes up 90% of the country’s overall workforce, and a significant portion of the country’s overall population (Dart, 2022). At the source of the systemic abuse against the millions of migrant workers in Qatar is the kafala (or sponsorship) system, an exploitative labour law system used mostly in the region of the Arab Gulf. The kafala system subjects the migrant worker to the strict control of their employer, who commands the workers’ entry or exit of the country, their ability to change jobs, the renewal of work permits, and their legal status in the country (Dumoulin, 2021). This system facilitates the exploitation of migrant workers and violation of migrant worker rights. Being subject to the will and interest of their employers, migrant workers can be trapped in working conditions that are extremely abusive without any opportunity to leave or oppose.
While Qatar has implemented some labour law reforms— notably, allowing migrant workers to change jobs without the approval of a former employer and slightly wage increases— these reforms have not been sufficient to abolish the kafala system in Qatar as a whole. Indeed, migrant workers in Qatar have no protection against labour exploitation and are still closely tied to their employer, relying on them for their legal status and permission of entry/exit of the country (Human Rights Watch, 2018). The kafala system is one of many other abuses against migrant workers in Qatar: there have been numerous reports of mysterious injuries, migrant worker deaths due to “natural causes”— a seemingly interchangeable term to describe extreme heat exhaustion— and unpaid wages.
Despite these reports, FIFA’s silence towards the migrant worker abuse in Qatar has been deafening. They hold responsibility in their decision of granting the right of hosting the World Cup to Qatar without imposing any conditions protecting the human rights of migrant workers employed to build their stadiums. (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
FIFA was aware of the infrastructure deficit in Qatar with regards to accommodating a World Cup and chose to benefit from the exploitation of migrant workers instead of change it.
What distinguishes human rights issues from celebrations of culture? Is culture a sufficient excuse or justification for the mistreatment of minority groups? Recently, these two questions have gained substantial traction within the media as the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaches, being held this year in Qatar—which is where the controversy begins.
The decision to hold this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar was deemed highly problematic by some due to Qatar’s record of human rights violations, as is demonstrated by the country’s criminalization of homosexuality, which can result in up to three years of prison in the country (Lewis 2022). In response, the “OneLove” campaign, an initative founded in the Netherlands to celebrate diversity within soccer communities, was due to take center stage (New York Post, 2022). To show their support, participants wear an armband featuring a multi-coloured heart to represent those belonging to all heritages, genders, and sexual identities. These armbands are meant to stand against discrimination and promote inclusion. The captains of seven countries competing were set to wear these armbands in solidarity, including England, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands (Ramsay and Nabbi, 2022). However, due to recent actions taken by FIFA itself, the initiative has been abandoned.
To discourage players from wearing OneLove armbands throughout the World Cup, FIFA declared that players found wearing said armbands would be given yellow cards and may face additional sanctions (Ramsay and Nabbi, 2022) as punishment. FIFA’s efforts seemingly succeeded, as all seven soccer federations backed down from the campaign. In a joint statement, they asserted that “[a]s national federations we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings” (New York Post, 2022). Thus, the movement was quashed before it ever truly began. Even so, the situation introduces another issue regarding Qatar’s stance on LBGTQ+ rights: some fans feel unsafe travelling to Qatar, fearing for their safety (Lewis 2022).
The Secretary General of FIFA, Fatma Samoura, said in a statement, “[n]o matter your race, your religion, your social and sexual orientation, you are most welcome, and Qataris are ready to receive you with the best hospitality that you can imagine” (Lewis 2022). However, at the same time, a statement from Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) reads, “[e]veryone is welcome in Qatar, but we are a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon. We simply ask for people to respect our culture” (Lewis 2022). In this case, then, culture seems to obfuscate matters of human rights, as the line between what is to be considered a human rights abuse and what is to be considered part of a separate country’s culture becomes blurred.
Teams were reportedly asked to “keep politics off the field” (New York Post, 2022). This raises the question: are human rights a strictly political issue, or do they supersede the realm of politics and possess a more universal significance? Should there be certain criteria necessary for selecting a country to host an international event as important as the World Cup? If so, how could such criteria be implemented while balancing the line between cultural relativism and cultural imperialism?
The Football Supporters’ Association, a representative body based in England and Wales, made a poignant statement encapsulating the situation. It reads, “[t]oday we feel contempt for an organisation that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance… No country which falls short on LGBT+ rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights or any other universal human right should be given the honour of hosting a World Cup” (Thorogood, 2022). It is clear that this situation is bigger than Qatar or soccer alone. Human rights are a topic of contention all around the world. Countries must figure out how to toe the line between respecting different cultures and standing up against blatant human rights transgressions.
Associated Press. “FIFA Threats Force World Cup Teams to Abandon ‘OneLove’ Armband.” New York Post. New York Post, November 21, 2022. https://nypost.com/2022/11/21/fifa-threats-force-world-cup-teams-to-abandon-onelove-armband/ .
Lewis, Aimee. “’It’s Not Safe and It’s Not Right.’ Qatar Says All Are Welcome to the World Cup but Some LGBTQ Soccer Fans Are Staying Away.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 19, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/19/football/qatar-world-cup-2022-lgbtq-rights-spt-intl/index.html.
Ramsay, George, and Zayn Nabbi. “England’s Harry Kane and Several Other European Captains Told Not to Wear ‘Onelove’ Armband at World Cup.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 22, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/21/football/onelove-armband-qatar-2022-world-cup-spt-intl.
Thorogood, James. “Onelove Campaign Hit by Threat of FIFA Sanctions .” dw.com. Deutsche Welle, November 21, 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/world-cup-2022-onelove-campaign-hit-by-threat-of-fifa-sanctions/a-6381 8810.
Tens of millions of football fans all over the world were rejoicing as the 2022 FIFA World Cup began. Since 2010, when Qatar won the contract to host the 2022 World Cup, it has spent upwards of $220 billion on unprecedented construction to prepare for this World Cup (Worden, 2022). Qatar has evidently spared no expense to transform its desert into a beaming hub of decadence, complete with new stadiums, buildings, hotels, and highways—that is, until one considers the migrant workers who built this infrastructure. Investigative journalism and reports from Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have found disturbing human rights abuses including the death of over 6,500 migrant workers during Qatar’s construction, making it one of the deadliest sporting events in history (Pattisson & McIntyre, 2021). The list of human rights abuses also includes expensive recruitment fees, appalling living conditions, threats from their employers, modern-slavery tactics, and lying about and delaying worker salaries (Goodman & Worden, 2022) all against a backdrop of LGBTQ+ discrimination, disregard for women’s rights and a lack of press freedom to investigate aforementioned migrant abuses (Goodman & Worden, 2022, Human Rights Watch, 2022).
Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, opened a news conference in Doha, Qatar, with a surprising one-hour monologue, stating: “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.” (Goodman & Worden, 2022). Doubtful to say the least, as Qatar has some of the most repressive migrant labour policies in the world, beginning with their abusive “Kafala” labor sponsorship system which uses “modern-day slavery” tactics to provide as much cheap and dispensable labour as possible (Goodman & Worden, 2022). The “Kafala” is a debt-bondage system, in which migrant workers looking to work in Qatar must take out loans to be recruited for work. These loans can range from seven hundred to fourteen thousand USD, in some cases a financially crushing responsibility which can take years to pay off (Goodman & Worden, 2022). Migrant workers in Qatar are then tied to their employers, or “sponsors,” and cannot request or renew their residence permits without the sponsor’s permission. However, if the sponsor fails to renew the permit, it is the worker who faces punishment (Amnesty International, 2021).
Additionally, these workers face deadly working environments, some of which possess exorbitant heat levels. There is also the systemic use of stealing and delaying wages of migrant workers. Thousands of migrant workers suffer from late or non-payment of wages (Amnesty International, 2021), thus taking out costly loans to pay the illegal recruitment fees. These have devastating impacts on workers who are providing not only for themselves but for families back home–many of these workers have had to return home with no money as a result (Amnesty International, 2022).
Additionally, the living conditions within dorms are just as horrid as working conditions outside. Workers tend to live in dirty, cramped, unsafe accommodations (Amnesty International, 2021). Indeed, Amnesty found men sleeping in bunk beds in rooms of eight or more people, although Qatari law and the Workers’ Welfare Standards allow for a maximum of four beds per room and prohibit bed sharing and the use of bunk beds (Amnesty International, 2021).
When workers are bold enough to complain about their conditions and human rights transgressions they are met with strong threats from their employers. One migrant worker working at the Khalifa Stadium said that they “went to the company office, telling the manager I wanted to go home [back to my country] because always my pay is late. The manager screamed at me saying ‘keep working or you will never leave!’” (Amnesty International, 2021). Mohammad, who maintains green spaces in the Aspire Zone, said, “The company has my passport. If my sponsorship status changes they will send me back and I have a lot of debt to pay…, I want my passport back… [and] the camp is no good, there are eight of us in one room – it is too many. But I cannot complain [because] they will end my job.” (Amnesty International, 2021). Couple this with the fact that migrant-worker trade unions are illegal and therefore one cannot organize, protest, nor strike against their employers’ hopeless system of control, exploitation, and abuse—migrant workers in Qatar cannot strike for their basic human rights. Workers who refuse to work because of their conditions are threatened with pay deductions, or get handed to the police for deportation without receiving the pay they are owed (Amnesty International, 2022).
These Migrant workers overwhelmingly arrive from poorer countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Ghana, and Kenya (Worden, 2022), leave their country behind for years in hopes of providing a better future for their children. As Gianni Infantino once said, “Qatar is offering migrants the opportunity to provide for their families, whereas Europe has closed its borders,” adding elsewhere in the press conference that he would compensate workers and their families who faced abuse and death while building the World Cup stadiums (Goodman & Worden, 2022). However, there is no indication that the legacy fund will go to any of the thousands of families who lost their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons to Qatar’s brutal working regime. Furthermore, Qatar forbids the press freedom necessary to investigate migrant labour abuses, making it nearly impossible to document and track death and abuse as a result of the World Cup construction (Goodman & Worden, 2022). Qatar has also refused to do autopsies on workers who have died; if officials claim the deaths were “natural causes” then they are not obligated under Qatar’s labour law to compensate the families (Worden, 2022).
Importantly, all of these violations occur against a larger backdrop of intense LGBTQ+ discrimination. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and as recently as this past September, Qatari security forces arrested and abused LGBTQ+ people in detention (Goodman & Worden, 2022). The teams of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland announced that their captains will no longer be wearing armbands in support of LGBTQ rights during the World Cup, since tournament organizer FIFA promised to sanction any players who wear the bands (Goodman & Worden, 2022). Qatar also has a male-guardianship system which shows discrimination and a lack of rights for the women of Qatar as well.
Some of the saddest cases that Human Rights Watch have seen regard families wherein the main breadwinner, a young man, goes to Qatar, takes out a loan to work there, works in debt bondage, gets cheated of wages, does not receive the wages he was promised, and then has his body returned home to his family in a coffin (Goodman & Worden, 2022).
The following is a statement from former Qatar migrant worker, Hari, featured in a “report” by Human Rights Watch: “When I went to Lusail in Qatar, there was nothing. There wasn’t even a single building. Now there are towers everywhere. We built those towers. In the heat, we worked out of compulsion with face covers. We were drenched in sweat. We poured water, sweat, from our shoes. Even in that heat, we worked hard. My son did not recognize me when I first came from Qatar to Nepal…I met my son only five times in the 14 years I was away. I used to cry and feel bad that I had to stay away from children for work” (HRW, 2022).
A following statement from Nanda Kali Nepali, whose husband was one of those deaths: “My husband used to work as a driver. He used to come for two months every two years. This time, only his dead body came, four years after he had last visited Nepal. What would he say? He used to say, “I will work here ’til I can. We have loans we need to repay.” My husband was my source of support. Without him, who do I rely on? I sit and I cry on my own. Whom can I show my tears to?” (HRW, 2022)
Although FIFA regards themselves as “not the police of the world” (Worden, 2022), they were entirely aware of the Kafala system in Qatar along with Qatar’s position on social issues, but none the less granted them the contract while turning a blind eye to the severe human rights abuses, presenting them as a strong ally and friend to the international governing body of FIFA.
A. I. (2021, July 29). Qatar World Cup of Shame. Amnesty International. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/03/qatar-world-cup-of-shame/
A. I. (2022, October 20). Reality check: Migrant workers’ rights in QatarA. Amnesty International. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/02/reality-check-migrant-workers-rights-with-two-years-to-qatar-2022-world-cup/
H. R. W. (2022, November 19). Qatar: FIFA World Cup opens without remedy for migrants. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/11/19/qatar-fifa-world-cup-opens-without-remedy-migrants
H. R. W. (2022, November 21). Qatar: Rights abuses stain FIFA World Cup. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/11/14/qatar-rights-abuses-stain-fifa-world-cup
Goodman, A., & Worden, M. (2022, November 21). World Cup in Qatar is “deadliest major sporting event” in history, built on a decade of forced labor. Democracy Now! Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.democracynow.org/2022/11/21/fifa_world_cup_qatar_labor_rights
Pattisson, P., & McIntyre, N. (2021, February 23). Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded. The Guardian. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/23/revealed-migrant-worker-deaths-qatar-fifa-world-cup-2022
Worden, M. (2022, August 23). The World Cup is exciting, lucrative, and deadly. Newsweek. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.newsweek.com/world-cup-exciting-lucrative-deadly-opinion-1735799.