For the first time in history, an Arab country, Qatar, has won the bid to host the World Cup in 2022. Yet, allegations of borderline slave labor used to build the stadium have caused many to wonder whether Qatar deserves to host the World Cup. These allegations are based on two prominent studies independently conducted by Amnesty International and the UK newspaper, The Guardian.
This shocking revelation is particularly disappointing considering that Qatar won the bid by highlighting the World Cup’s potential to bridge gaps between the Arab and Western worlds and to create unity and understanding. Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Chairman of Qatar’s winning bid, stated, “The unwavering resolution of the Qatari people and the government – to modernize, to advocate for peace, to build for the future – is like the iron will of an athlete in pursuit of victory… We are offering FIFA an incredible event, with a tremendous football legacy, but also a legacy for humanity…Qatar 2022 can be a watershed moment.”
True to the Chairman’s word, Qatar initially began to make a few small concessions in the name of peace and acceptance. In a country where homosexuality is a crime punishable by corporal punishment and imprisonment, individuals who identify as LGBT will be welcome and accepted at the games. Additionally, while Qatar does not officially recognize the state of Israel, it will allow Israeli players to participate in the games and fly the Israeli flag. Qatar has even agreed to serve alcohol to non-citizens. Despite these positive gestures, using forced labor overshadows these gestures of goodwill.
Building the infrastructure to host the World Cup is a massive undertaking. Aside from the stadium, Qatar has to build hotels and restaurants to accommodate the massive influx of spectators for the games. Qatar is even building a whole city from the ground up, Lusail City, to host the final tournament. To accomplish this construction project Qatar uses forced labor, as defined by the International Labor Organization Convention 29: “forced or compulsory labor” is “all work or service, which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Migrant workers are the primary victims of forced labor. Pate Pattison from The Guardian interviewed many migrant workers who are forced to work twelve-hour days, frequently are withheld payment, and are not provided water even in the summer, when temperatures rise to 114 degrees Fahrenheit. Workers also claim their passports were confiscated and that they were not issued identity cards, a crucial item for an immigrant to walk freely in Qatar.
Many migrant workers remain in these abhorrent conditions because they need their employers to sign an exit permit before leaving the country. Qatar also employs a kafala system, which requires all unskilled laborers to have a sponsor from within the country who is responsible for their visa and legal status. The in-country sponsor is usually an employer, whose control over the worker is frequently abused to prevent workers from changing employers or leaving the country. The workers who can leave Qatar face a paradox: if they stay they physically suffer, but if they go they default on the loans they took out to come to Qatar and are unable to look after their families. While these working conditions are not unique to Qatar, they should not exist in a country attempting to represent Arab countries in bridging the gap between the Arab and Western worlds, and their existence is particularly reprehensible in a country hosting an international event.
Amnesty International’s study on the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar revealed the same story. Physical violence and intimidation are used as punishment for faulty work, and companies provide unsafe working and living conditions. Employers frequently fail to provide workers with resident permits, forcing workers to remain in the labor camps for fear of being stopped by the police without a permit. These camps are incredibly unsanitary and often lack electricity and running water. If workers want to leave employers will occasionally allow it, but only if the workers sign a document saying they have been paid in full for their labor and received travel tickets. Many take this option because they have lost hope of ever being paid.
FIFA’s response to the reports of heinous working conditions in Qatar was to deflect responsibility. When Qatar initially won the bid for the World Cup in 2011, the FIFA Chairman stated, “We have a responsibility that goes beyond the development of football and the organization of our competitions.” However, two years later, FIFA has yet to take concrete steps towards reducing the use of borderline slave labor in preparing for the 2022 World Cup. More recently the FIFA Chairman stated, “The workers’ rights will be the responsibility for Qatar and the companies – many of them European companies – who work there. It is not FIFA’s primary responsibility but we cannot turn a blind eye. Yet it is not a direct intervention from FIFA that can change things,” essentially absolving FIFA of all responsibility regarding working conditions in Qatar in preparation for the World Cup. FIFA has officially decided to keep Qatar as the host for the 2022 World Cup, despite demands from human rights groups to change the location.
In response to these allegations, the company behind the Lusail City Development, Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizing committee, and the Qatar labor ministry, all denied culpability and deflected blame onto inaccurate journalism and corrupt contracting companies. They also point to laws that protect workers and they express a desire to increase regulation and begin investigations. Yet laws are not enforced, investigations lead to dead ends, and no one can show any positive results from their efforts to stop the mistreatment of workers. Culpability is further deflected by blaming the deaths of migrant workers’ on their countries of origin, when in reality, these individuals die from unsafe worksites and unsanitary living conditions.
Considering these troubling events, the global community has a choice: should we attend the World Cup, and thereby implicitly support the use of forced labor, or boycott the event? Despite the grim picture I have painted thus far, I believe people should still attend the event. The poor treatment of workers in Qatar does not falsify its claims to want to bridge the gap between the Arab and western worlds. Change comes slowly, and considering Qatar’s stringent rules on alcohol, the LGBT community and its refusal to recognize Israel, it is already stepping out of its comfort zone to help bridge this gap. If this event goes well Qatar may be open to making further concessions regarding human rights in the future. Punishing Qatar by boycotting the event or moving the event to another country might only serve to deter future progress. Additionally, migrant workers’ rights in most Arab countries are similar to their rights in Qatar. Changing such a fundamental part of society is difficult to accomplish before the World Cup in 2022. Changing the treatment of workers is difficult because it will completely change the makeup of the Qatar employment force, it will uproot and stall Qatar’s industries that depend on migrant workers, such as construction and farming, and raise the cost of goods because companies will actually have to pay laborers. Therefore, this shift in workers rights is not as simple as just changing a few laws.
I also think people should attend the World Cup in Qatar because hosting an international sporting event without involving politics is a great first step for countries with different value systems and ideologies to focus on commonalities rather than differences. Remember, this is the first time an Arab country has hosted the World Cup. Considering the violence and terrorism that many people associate with the Middle East, a lively sporting event is a great way to start engaging cultures to increase communication and break down stereotypes.