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Labor Exploitation and the 2022 World Cup

Labor Exploitation and the 2022 World Cup

With less than five months until the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is making final preparations to host millions of fans. FIFA permitted Qatar to host the 2022 games back in 2010. Since then, Qatar has spent an estimated $220 billion on new stadiums, roads, hotels, and other necessities to accommodate incoming fans. The burden of labor to create this infrastructure has fallen on migrant workers. Migrant labor dominates economies in the Gulf – it constitutes an average of 70% of all labor in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.  In Qatar, it constitutes an astonishing 95% of all labor, according to Human Rights Watch. For the last decade, Qatar has faced increasing criticism regarding its system for migrant labor. The Kafala System, utilized by all Gulf countries, leaves employees extremely vulnerable to the will of their employer. By perpetuating uneven power dynamics without much oversight, this system exposes millions of workers to exploitation and abuse. This exploitation and abuse runs rampant amongst workers hired to build infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.

The Kafala system invites exploitation by giving employers permission to act as a sponsor for individual workers. The employer covers all travel and housing expenses for the migrant. In return, employers have relatively unregulated control over employees’ autonomy. Employers control migrant workers’ legal status, visa status, and often retain important documents such as passports. Employers also have control over workers’ ability to change jobs. By refusing to transfer documents to the new employer, previous employers can essentially force workers to remain in place. Employers can also render employees as illegal migrants by refusing to renew visa documents – upon discovery by authorities, an undocumented migrant can face severe fines and jail time. The extremely unequal power dynamic gives the employer, or sponsor, full control over the worker’s mobility, autonomy, and livelihood. Additionally, migrant workers regularly face issues of delayed wages, long hours, and extremely dangerous working conditions. Since 2010, over 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar.

In 2017, the International Labor Organization (ILO) acknowledged these issues. They entered into an agreement with Qatar aimed at tackling the country’s labor problems. This agreement looked to reform the Kafala System, increase workers’ access to justice, improve health and safety for workers, and regulate wages. In return for these changes, the ILO promised to withdraw its request for the World Cup to be moved elsewhere. Qatar passed several new pieces of legislation in line with the agreement. While the situation has improved over the last five years, much of the new legislation addresses the situation in name only. Migrant laborers still face a multitude of life-threatening issues. Of the 6,500 workers who have died in Qatar, many died during dangerous construction jobs, from heat-related incidents, in road accidents, or from unsafe living conditions in labor camps. The World Cup will occur as planned in November, despite this devastating human toll. FIFA appears to be taking little to no action. Major international players, including the ILO, UN, and governments like the United States, need to acknowledge the reality of the situation. The enjoyment of soccer fans across the world comes at the cost of abused and exploited workers. The international community needs to do better.

Qatar’s new legislation has addressed some of these issues. It removed the exit permit requirement, which gave employers control over migrants’ ability to leave the country. New legislation also removed the ability of employers to prevent workers from changing jobs. Qatar established a new minimum wage, a wage protection system, new labor dispute committees, and a workers’ insurance fund. However, weak implementation requirements have left millions of workers without knowledge of their rights. Many employers continue to utilize unsafe practices. Passport confiscation continues to occur, employees still experience harsh working conditions, and wage theft is common. In July 2020, Amnesty International found that around 100 employees who built Al Bayt Stadium had been denied their wages for nearly seven months.

The 2022 World Cup will occur only thanks to the hours of dangerous labor completed by underpaid and mistreated migrant workers. While the 2017 ILO agreement marginally improved labor rights in Qatar, it did not successfully defend the two million individuals it was created to protect. It seems as though everyone, including the ILO, has turned their backs on some of the world’s most vulnerable. Amnesty International has called for FIFA to donate around $440 million to the migrant workers who worked on the World Cup. This money would be intended to cover the “loss and abuse” they suffered over the last ten years. FIFA acknowledged Amnesty International’s request but only promised to implement a “due diligence process.” It seems unlikely migrant workers will ever receive any reparations. The World Cup provides a massive platform to raise awareness for migrant labor issues. The governments of participating teams should take the opportunity to voice concern over working conditions and the general status of human rights in Qatar. If FIFA refuses to acknowledge its complacency with labor exploitation, participating governments need to step up.