The 22nd FIFA world cup is scheduled to take place in Qatar in November and December 2022. This will be only the second world cup held entirely in Asia since 2002 and the first in the Arab world. The country won the right to host the tournament in 2010 in controversial circumstances; allegations of irregularities during the bidding process prompted an internal investigation by FIFA, but a report in 2017 cleared Qatar of any corruption.  In the build-up of preparations to host almost 1.2 million visitors to the competition, Qatar has faced intense scrutiny over its treatment of migrant workers. 

Over the past 11 years, Qatar has commenced a considerable building program in preparation for the World Cup, including seven new stadiums, a new airport, public transport systems, hotels, and even a new city that will host the final. Scores of migrant workers arrived from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka to find work; however, research from the Guardian compiled from government sources had found that ‘an average of 12 migrant workers from these five south Asian nations had died each week since the night in December 2010 when the streets of Doha were filled with ecstatic crowds celebrating Qatar’s victory.  The report specified that there were 5,927 deaths of migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka between 2011 and 2020 and 824 deaths of Pakistani workers between 2010 and 2020. It is estimated that the actual death toll will be significantly higher in 2021. 

Qatar’s workforce is 95% made up of migrant workers – this is about two million people. The high death toll and the unwillingness to investigate the deaths properly or change conditions for workers highlights their failure to protect the workers that are the backbone of the country’s economy. Human Rights Watch has urged Qatar to put restrictions on outdoor work to protect workers from health-related risks – a cause of death that has been the reason behind countless deaths of migrant workers in preparation for the competition. 

The migrant workers arriving in Qatar often face abuses to their human rights and dignity before leaving their home countries. Workers are exploited, often paying extortionate recruitment fees to secure jobs in Qatar, becoming heavily in debt. The promises of good pay often disintegrate as the workers arrive, signing contracts for less money than promised and being forced to hand over their passports to the employer. Qatar implements a sponsorship program known as kafala, which ties the migrant worker’s legal status to the employer, which restricts them from leaving their employer without permission to change to another job. 

According to Human Rights Watch, the most vital roles for hosting a successful world cup tournament are the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This includes construction and service industry workers such as cleaners and security guards. However, despite additional protections put in place by a national body tasked with overseeing the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the protections only apply to under 1.5% of the overall migrant population.

Human rights organizations heavily criticize the Kafala system. Following years of criticism, Qatar has reversed some aspects of the abusive and controlling sponsorship program. These changes were implanted as part of a cooperation agreement with the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO). In January 2020, 10 years into the preparations, Qatar announced that workers would no longer need an exit permit to leave the country. Previously workers required the permission of their employer. This change fell short of expectations as it does not cover people who cannot access labor law rights, such as government officials, those who work in the energy sector, domestic workers, or agriculture workers. Migrant workers are now also afforded the right to change jobs before the end of their contracts without obtaining their employers’ consent and have the right to a bare minimum wage for all workers. A complaints procedure has also been established – The Labour Dispute Resolution Committees aim to help workers pursue grievances against employers quickly and efficiently. 

However, the translation of legal provisions into practice is slow and inadequate implementation or oversight has allowed employers to pick and choose what protections to offer.

The glory of the world cup and the obsession with hosting a successful tournament has distracted Qatar from its responsibilities to its workforce. Migrant workers are entirely dependent on Qatari employers. With barely a year left to the start of the tournament, international companies, governments, and individuals must pay attention to their responsibilities to migrant workers. A questionnaire by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found that 19 luxury hotel brands fall short of protecting the rights of migrant workers. In July 2021, the report’s key findings showed an unwillingness to be transparent about labor suppliers, and recruiters and workers could not freely change jobs despite the landmark reform to the Kafala system. The results also found there was inadequate due diligence completed by these multi-million in profit companies during recruitment. This lack of due diligence was also linked to suppressing the voices of migrant workers, as the majority of workers interviewed as part of the research said there was access to worker committees but the hotels involved replied universally that no such committees exist.

The alarming deficits in protections to migrant workers show that migrant workers are being considered as objects necessary in the attempt to create profit for not only the host country but also FIFA itself (expected profit for FIFA is estimated at $3 billion alone) and the countless commercial entities that will participate in the tournament. The appointment of the prestigious tournament to Qatar also shows that nations are willing to sacrifice human rights in the name of the ‘holy’ game. Qatar’s human rights record leaves a lot to be desired, especially regarding freedom of expression, women’s rights, the right to privacy, and the death penalty.

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