On November 20th, the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off to widespread criticism over hosting nation Qatar’s human rights record. Here Michael Rogerson explains why critics are condemning the tournament, and reflects on the hypocrisy of the corporate sponsors for continuing to support it. Michael is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath. Prior to returning to academia, he spent over five years working in the construction industry in North Africa and the Middle East, including a year in Qatar.
A little over 12 years ago, as summer temperatures in Qatar’s capital city of Doha reached high-40s °C, my colleagues and I stared out of our office window down at the building site next door. There, South Asian migrant workers were slaving away, unprotected from the fierce midday sun. Or for that matter, from any construction site risks, since even rudimentary safety equipment was nowhere to be seen. This was in contravention of what we had been told about local law and the protection of manual workers. The Gulf during the summer is brutal. And yet the labourers below us appeared not even to have water with them.
Exploitation is rife
Drawn by the lure of higher pay, millions of South Asians have been employed on construction projects in Qatar since the country won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010. Tragically, the damning safety records of sites related to World Cup projects means that over 6,500 of those workers will never again see the families for whom they hoped to provide. Six thousand, five hundred people dead – a number which makes the World Cup hundreds of times more deadly than the 2014 Sochi Olympics, itself an outlier for worker mortality. Up to 70% of those deaths remain unexplained by Qatari authorities, largely because they have failed to investigate those fatalities.
Weather conditions in Qatar are not the only problems faced by migrant workers. Despite promises from Qatar's Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs that “significant changes have been made over the last year to improve the rights and conditions of expatriate workers”, living conditions have remained as appalling as work environments. Indeed, a report by Amnesty International stated that Qatar was failing to deliver on even the scant promises it had made about workers’ rights. Workers themselves report being worked “like animals” and that their managers “don’t care if we die”.
The abuse begins before labourers even arrive in Qatar, however. Many workers take out loans in order to pay to travel to Qatar – loans which can take years to repay (if they can be repaid at all) since they trap workers in “cycles of exploitation”. As recently as 2020, workers arriving in the country were subject to the Kafala (‘sponsorship’) visa system. This visa system ties the individual to a particular employer and insists that workers give up possession of their passports, making leaving the country all but impossible. While on paper such practices are against Qatari law, the authorities have done very little to change behaviours on the ground. Human Rights Watch has been reporting for a decade that “laws intended to protect workers are rarely enforced”.
Muzzling its critics
Clearly sensitive to accusations of the mistreatment of workers, the Qatari authorities have resorted to arresting journalists reporting on abuses. In 2015, a team of BBC reporters was run off the road by a group of eight cars. Even in the days before the tournament began, Danish reporters in Doha were threatened in the middle of a broadcast despite showing officials their accreditations.
Criticism of worker abuses began soon after the right to host the 2022 World Cup was awarded. I was in Doha when some of the early reports began to make the front pages. Promises have repeatedly been made that rogue construction firms will be held to account and that laws will be updated to ensure that abuses end. We have yet to see any evidence that those promises have been upheld. Indeed, when Abdullah Ibhais, a media officer on the tournament’s organizing committee, told colleagues that workers’ deaths should be acknowledged, he was arrested, tried by what was effectively a ‘kangaroo court’, and sentenced to three years in prison on bribery charges. It seems that Qatari authorities will accept no mention, let alone criticism, of their inability to protect workers even by upholding their own legislation.
Everyone will be welcome?
The human rights abuses seen in Qatar are not limited to the workers building the infrastructure for the tournament. Despite claims from FIFA’s own CEO that “everyone will be welcome” at the World Cup, the LGBT+ community has been specifically targeted by authorities in the country. Gay Qataris have been physically abused by security services in their homeland and then forced to inform on and track down other gay people. There are reports that transgender people have been kept in solitary confinement.
The Norwegian and Dutch national football teams have made public statements objecting to the tournament being held in Qatar. FIFA’s response, echoed by President Macron of France, has been that teams must “focus on the football”. Even outlets who’ve been long-critical of human rights in Qatar have begun to be sucked into the sporting narrative, with the Guardian calling the tournament “horrifying but irresistible”.
While calls to ignore the staggering human impact of the tournament grew as the tournament drew closer, it is notable that sponsors have remained almost completely silent on any of the topics at hand. In 2014, some of FIFA and the World Cup’s main sponsors issued ‘statements of concern’ over Qatar’s hosting, calling for investigations into the possible corruption that led to them winning the bid. And yet - despite those concerns, and evidence of worse abuses coming to light - all of those firms (Fly Emirates, Coca-Cola, Sony, Adidas, and Visa) remain prominent sponsors. Occasional, bland statements have been issued, such as “our expectation remains that all of our partners maintain strong ethical standards and operate with transparency" (Visa) and "the negative tenor of the public debate around FIFA at the moment is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners” (Adidas).
Adidas is a particularly interesting case because it has been lauded for “celebrating inclusion, equality and love for LGBT Pride month”. One might identify this as a case of corporate hypocrisy, as their support for LGBT+ people does not extend to making prominent statements of support for LGBT+ Qataris during the World Cup. Perhaps if “football is everything,” as their World Cup slogan goes, then concerns about worker deaths and violence against the vulnerable communities can be ignored?
Adidas is not alone. McDonalds is “proud to celebrate, support and uplift our LGBTQ+ communities throughout the year”; Visa asserts that “Inclusion is behavioral - it invites and welcomes all identities as respected business partners”; and Coca-Cola “is committed to championing diversity, equity and inclusion through its workplace culture, community partnerships, charitable giving and policy advocacy”. One is left wondering how much value such solidarity has to a member of the LGBT+ community in Qatar.
A stain on the reputation of the sport
There are many who claim that criticism of Qatar is unfair, biased, or part of some wider agenda. But human rights experts and journalists investigating the abuses outlined above confirm what I, a researcher on these issues myself, have seen with my own eyes. That workers are expected to work in conditions we would not tolerate ourselves, and have paid extortionate fees for the opportunity to do so. The fact that they cannot leave without the permission of both their employer and the state clearly amounts to a definition of modern slavery. The massive scale of abuse and death on which this World Cup has been built – as well as the collective blind eye turned by sponsors and organisers - shames a sport which already appears shameless. FIFA World Cup 2022 will be remembered, not for who wins or loses, but for the enormous suffering it took to host the tournament.