By Chiara Poulteney
Qatar’s climate is unsuitable for hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022 due to the country’s excessively high temperatures. Overcoming this challenge requires building very expensive infrastructure, including stadiums. But this ambitious project has become little more than a death camp. According to The Guardian’s report revealing death tolls among Qatar’s 2022 World Cup workers, in 2014 Nepalese workers alone suffered a fatal accident every two days. It is feared that the death toll among all migrants, including Indian, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi workers, is almost certainly greater than one a day. Workers are forced to labor long hours in extreme heat and are extremely vulnerable to fatal heat strokes and cardiac arrest.
Migrant workers are tied to their employers by the kafala system, which requires all unskilled laborers to have a sponsor who is responsible for their visa and legal status. Workers cannot change jobs or leave the country without the permission of their employers. Although these practices are not legal, passports are often confiscated, payment of wages is delayed, and many laborers are refused the right to leave. Living conditions are generally squalid.
Despite repeated criticism over the past three years, little improvement in working conditions for migrant workers has been made. A recent Amnesty International report is particularly critical of FIFA’s failure to exert pressure on the Qatari authorities and its “lack of meaningful action to address the issue.” Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty has noted that, “despite five years of promises, FIFA has failed almost completely to stop the World Cup being built on human rights abuses.” Qatari officials are typically indifferent to the conditions of unskilled migrant workers. The construction projects are so large and complex, involving a sophisticated chain of sub-contractors, that they ultimately conceal those directly responsible for human rights abuses.
Consequences of Exploitation
It is simply unacceptable that basic human rights are being abused for the glorification of what is already one of the richest per capita countries in the world. It is even worse that the world football body, FIFA, whose adopted slogan is “fair play,” condones such injustices.
The abuse of migrant workers in the manual labor sector in Qatar and the Gulf states has not only domestic repercussions, but also international ones. In an interview, Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute with expertise in the politics of the Middle East, explained that this manipulation of migrant workers creates negative state-to-state relations. This issue reinforces or resurfaces historically unequal power relationships between states, particularly in the case of South Asian workers who are discriminated against and taken advantage of for manual labor. Ultimately, this power imbalance may strain relationships between the wealthy Qatar and United Arab Emirates, in which citizens comprise a minority of the population, and the developing countries of South Asia, whose citizens leave to find better jobs in the Gulf states.
How to Approach the Issue
While other countries should not infringe upon Qatar’s sovereignty, they should cooperate with its government to prevent the continuation of worker exploitation in the near future. If other countries partaking in the FIFA tournament, especially those from the West, don’t help address this issue straight away, then they risk losing credibility in the eyes of their South Asian allies whose citizens are most at risk of exploitation in Qatar and other Gulf states.
A necessary starting point to begin addressing this issue is for more publications and media outlets to target officials responsible for abuses. Once this has been achieved, organizations must pressure the companies sponsoring FIFA, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, to take measures to protect the workers. Ultimately, these corporations are among those who economically benefit the most from major sports tournaments. These measures can place workers under protection, such as by having a liable Coca-Cola representative monitor working conditions. Companies can also ensure workers’ rights by providing legal frameworks and lawyers.
FIFA, tournament sponsors, and even influential civil society groups should be persistent in their quest to negotiate with Qatar to modify the country’s restrictive sponsorship system. This does not only apply to Qatar, as other countries, including Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, have also adopted the kafala system.
The Broader Picture
The argument here is much broader than just Qatar. The exploitation of workers is nothing new. Thousands of monuments and other constructions have been built using similar forms of cheap labor and with similar worker abuse to what is now taking place in Qatar.
However, as Cristol emphasizes, if the World Cup weren’t being held in Qatar, would the international community be exposed to the exploitation of construction workers in the Gulf? Would attention have been drawn to the broader ramifications of this issue without this multinational event? The World Cup allowed the problem to surface and it must now call the attention of foreigners and organizations that can help take action to improve the conditions of migrant workers.
Exploitation is also taking place in other Gulf cities, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. When we, expats and tourists, arrive in these cities, we are exposed to the magnificent skyscrapers, luxurious hotels, monuments, and stadiums, but we are insulated from the harsh reality of the construction process that took place to create them.
In an article published by The Independent, three different Dubais are put forth through the lenses of three different groups: the expats, the Emiratis, and the foreign underclass who built the city and are now trapped there. The author of the article explains that “you see them [underclass] everywhere, being shouted at by their superiors, but you are trained not to look.” As soon as they arrive to Dubai in search of better jobs, their passports are taken away by construction companies. They are lied to about the hours they will be working and the wages they will be paid, and often end up working 14 hours a day in the desert heat. Their jobs are dangerous, consisting of carrying heavy bricks and blocks of cement in the unbearable heat up buildings that rise hundreds of stories high.
In the same article, the author asked an Emirati former lawyer why the state is so keen on defending the current system. He explained that “most companies are owned by the government, so they oppose human rights laws because it will reduce their profit margins, it’s in their interests that workers are slaves.” The cheap and abusive labor conditions in Dubai are essentially the same as the problem in Qatar, where workers are deprived of basic human rights in order to create beautiful infrastructure and sports complexes that they will never be able to enjoy themselves.
Countries that allow workers to be abused and robbed of their human rights put on a façade of beauty and wealth while an uglier side lies beneath. But Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are among the wealthiest countries in the world, so their inability to provide appropriate working and living conditions is utterly intolerable and inhumane. It won’t be long before visitors recognize the exploitation and emptiness behind these cities’ beauty if no action is taken to improve working conditions.
Chiara Poulteney is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Colleen Morgan]