The latest update in the controversy leading up to Qatar’s 2022 World Cup comes from reports that workers are now participating in a “Workers Cup,” which began this week. In the tournament, put on jointly by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy and the Qatar Stars League, 24 teams of laborers employed by World Cup contractors are competing in a series of football matches for monetary prizes. Organizers refer to the event as an effort to “use the power of football to engage and create positive social change in the country.” A UN official visiting Qatar has praised the tournament, saying, “Such efforts will bear fruit in terms of the social legacy that the 2022 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup in Qatar will imprint for and beyond the event.” The idea that a tournament for workers could somehow play a role in fixing the often-fatal working conditions for World Cup construction seems absurd, but it points to the larger issue at hand. Simply put, Qatar is too concerned about its reputation to take bold steps towards reforming its treatment of migrant workers, and instead relies on messaging about the transformative power of sports in order to deflect negative attention.
When Qatar received the bid for the 2022 World Cup in December 2010, months after FIFA President Sepp Blatter declared that “the Arabic world deserves a World Cup,” few in the international community seemed surprised. The country’s World Cup bid was seen by many to be “part of a much wider plan to position itself as the diplomatic, cultural and sporting hub of the region.” Needless to say, the Qatari government has invested huge amounts of money in FIFA in recent years. The plan for the bid includes 12 stadiums, a causeway from Qatar to Bahrain, road expansions, hotels, restaurants, and a high-speed rail system, all estimated to cost roughly $200 billion. Human Rights Watch estimates that a total of between 500,000 and one million workers will be needed to complete such projects. Currently, most construction workers on these sites are male migrant workers from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.
The first official statements specifically addressing the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar with relation to World Cup construction emerged in June 2012, when Human Rights Watch released a report titled, “Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022.” The report found forced labor and other human rights abuses among migrant workers in the country. Months later, The Guardian released the results of an in-depth investigation into high death rates among Nepalese construction workers employed by World Cup contractors, and Amnesty International released its own report of human rights abuses. While the causes of deaths are multiple, they include the high occurrence of sudden heart attacks among previously healthy young men, likely related to “harsh and dangerous conditions at work and cramped and squalid living quarters.”
Apart from the deaths, illness and lack of access to medical care have also received media attention as glaring problems. In what The Guardian described as a “Kafkaesque nightmare,” high numbers of Nepalese workers have fallen from construction site scaffolding and remain severely injured in Qatar with no access to medical care and no way to return to Nepal. Other allegations include lack of safety equipment and training, forced labor on some construction sites, high incidence of unpaid wages, confiscation of IDs and other documentation, and denial of access to free drinking water. Many articles specifically discuss the “repulsive” conditions of worker lodgings, in which workers sometimes sleep twelve to a room and become sick from the filth. Amnesty’s November 2013 report concluded that while not every worker in Qatar experiences abuse, “exploitation of migrant workers is routine and widespread.”
As someone who has spent a substantial amount of time in Nepal researching labor migration, I was surprised when major Western news outlets began publishing articles about the desperate situation of Nepalese workers in Qatar. Of course, it took a major international sporting event for people to become aware of human rights abuses that have been going on for years, but public awareness felt something like progress. I thought, perhaps, with an international audience, the stakeholders involved in employing migrant laborers for World Cup construction would feel pressured to reform the system and reduce the death toll. At a time when “ending modern day slavery” is a cause taken up by the likes of CNN and evangelical youth, perhaps the Qatari government could seize upon the opportunity to be hailed as a champion of migrant rights by turning things around. What I did not consider was that the attention of an international audience could have the reverse effect; with the world watching, any action would require a sort of implied admission of responsibility that no one- not the Qatari and Nepalese governments, FIFA, nor construction corporations- would dare take for fear of appearing guilty or putting a lucrative and costly event like the World Cup in jeopardy.
The controversy’s complexity lies in the difficulty of placing blame on any one individual or organization; as a diverse pool of stakeholders possess interest in and responsibility for the World Cup, related construction projects, and Nepalese migrant labor to Qatar. These stakeholders, including the Qatari and Nepalese governments, FIFA, and World Cup contractors and sponsors, have responded to the reports of abuse and exploitation with denial and minimal action. FIFA has essentially declared itself powerless to act, while the Qatari government’s new 50-page set of Workers’ Welfare Standards was released to “a lukewarm reception” from many organizations and trade unions like the ITUC, who made statements that the Supreme Committee did not go far enough with reforms, and that the newly-installed measures only constitute “a good starting point” for addressing workers’ rights in Qatar. An article in The Guardian reported that the Nepalese government “seems unwilling to act against mounting evidence of the labor abuses faced by thousands of its citizens,” and ILO officials even went as far as to describe the country’s government as “complicit in the trafficking for forced labor of its migrant workers.” The Nepalese government “doesn’t want to jeopardize lucrative remittances from the estimated 500,000 Nepalis in Qatar,” which could easily occur if the Qatari government decides that Nepalese labor has become too expensive or undesirable and chooses to replace it with similarly cheap labor from another developing country.
Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the ILO and other human rights-focused groups have pointed to the traditional kafala system as the underlying root of much of migrant worker exploitation. Under the system, which has its historical link in adoption, workers are required to have a Qatari citizen sponsor who is legally responsible for both the worker’s employment and his or her actions while in Qatar. The kafala system leaves workers in a vulnerable and powerless position, as it grants employers legal power over their employees and gives employers complete control to seize their workers’ passports and prevent workers from leaving the country or seeking other employment. In addition, PNCC (Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee, a Nepalese NGO), Amnesty International, and others have decried the fact that Qatar’s laws deny migrants freedom of association and collective bargaining rights. Without these, migrants are unable to unionize, strike, or bargain for better wages and working conditions.
FIFA and the Qatari government have largely avoided discussing kafala and workers’ rights by putting forth positive messaging that focuses on the positive impact of sporting events. FIFA has often taken a stance that has been echoed by other corporations and organizers, arguing that they strongly believe “in the positive power that the FIFA World Cup can have in Qatar as a platform for positive social change, including an improvement of labor rights and conditions for migrant workers.” This sort of logic alludes to an idea that international sporting events such as the World Cup have transformative power, and allows FIFA to avoid discussing the actual reality of worksite conditions. While the Olympics, the World Cup, and other similar events might promote positive messages of international unity or cooperation, they take place in the context of preexisting social and economic systems and cannot in themselves transform Qatar’s long history of exploiting migrant workers.
While the international nature of the World Cup allowed for widespread publicity and attention given to the plight of migrant workers, it also means that efforts at reform are carefully cultivated by public relations firms. Workers remain unprotected because no one wants to claim responsibility as a protector for fear of admitting wrongdoing. As long as public image is involved, the stakeholders in this controversy will continue political posturing in order to avoid the real problem at hand: a system in which migrant workers are viewed and treated as dispensable.
This blog post contains excerpts of a chapter written by Erin Phelps for the upcoming Nepal Migration Yearbook 2013, soon to be published by the Nepal Institute of Development Studies.