Many people were surprised when the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) announced Qatar as the host for the World Cup in football 2022. Qatar is not a big football nation; in fact it has never managed to qualify to the World Cup. During summer, which is the usual time for the tournament, the temperature can rise up to 50 degrees Celsius, which will cause big problems for the players as well as the supporters. But a more serious problem has been uncovered concerning the conditions for the construction workers. Their slave-like situation is currently putting their lives at risk and if nothing is done 4000 workers are predicted to die during construction. 

Qatar is a special country in many senses. Behind the luxurious facades of a country with one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, lies a completely different Qatar. It has a population of about 2 million people, of whom only 10 percent are Qatari nationals. The rest are guest workers – workers that lack citizenship and basic human rights. Since the World Cup is a giant project to host, Qatar needs to build stadiums, new roads, a metro and an airport, with a total cost of approximately 200 billion USD. This construction work creates an even bigger need for immigrant workers. At arrival to Qatar, these workers end up in a system called Kafala (sponsorship), which is a system used in the Gulf States that ties a migrant’s legal residence to his employer. The workers are contracted for at least 2 years, and during this time the employer controls what the workers eat and where they live, but most importantly their passports. Due to Qatari law the workers are not allowed to live among ordinary citizens so they are hosted in special camps. Neither can the workers change jobs nor leave the country without permission from the employer.

Guest workers are coming back to one of the camps used in the Kafala system. Source: Richard Messenger FlickrCC

Most of the guest workers in Qatar are employed in the building industry. Long workdays, bad security and extreme heat have resulted in injuries and deaths. Nepalese workers, one of the largest groups, are dying at a rate of more than one person a day. Many of them are young men dying from sudden heart attacks or workplace accidents. Unless the Qatari government makes urgent reforms, these numbers could increase to 600 workers a year – almost a dozen a week, says The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). That would mean approximately 4000 dead workers – more deaths than participating players in the World Cup itself.

The UN has called for the abolishment of the Kafala system, and FIFA has urged Qatar to improve the condition for the guest workers. But at the same time FIFA swears off any responsibility to intervene. “They have a problem and we know that, but this is not a question for FIFA”, said the FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Intervening in internal affairs was, however, not a problem during the World Cup in Brazil, when FIFA demanded a change in Brazilian legislation banning alcohol at football matches.

While FIFA might technically be right in saying it is not their responsibility to ensure guest workers’ human rights in Qatar, there are ways to influence and affect the situation. However, there seem to be a distinct lack of will to do so within FIFA. When Sepp Blatter was asked about awarding Qatar the tournament he said: “It may well be that we made a mistake at the time.”

Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA. Source: The Sport Review, FlickrCC

However, he was not talking about the conditions for the guest workers but the high temperatures that will affect the players. As a consequence FIFA is looking into the option of holding the tournament during the winter instead. That would mean better conditions for the players, but it will have no effect on the present working conditions for the guest workers. Rumors have also started saying that Qatar will be stripped of the World Cup, and that FIFA will conduct a re-vote. But this is also not stemming from concern for the workers; the main reason seems to be corruption allegations concerning the FIFA voting process. The Sunday Times revealed that corruption was behind the decision and that some FIFA committee members received money to vote for Qatar.

Qatar is not an isolated example where workers rights and well-being are set aside during the preparation of a big sports event. The cleaners at the Olympics in London had to share rooms with 10 others, with one shower for 75 people. Terrible working conditions were also seen during the Olympic Games in Sochi, where tens of thousands of migrant workers came from the surrounding countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Many of these workers were not fully paid, or were not paid at all. Some were thrown in prison, despite having legitimate work permits. When they were released they were sent home without a salary, despite months of work.

The working conditions for the people involved in many of today’s big sport events can often be compared with a system of modern slavery. The situation in Qatar with its Kafala system is a striking testament to the fact that our amusement often comes with a price.

Dennis Rubing

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