In theory, the system of kafala labor being used to build the stadiums for the World Cup should protect the workers. However, the employers serving as the laborers’ sponsors, although legally responsible to assure fair and safe working conditions for them, frequently do exactly the opposite. Reports of brutality, unsafe working conditions, destroying workers’ travel and identity documents, and withholding wages, have been widely documented in the international press for many months. As a recent New York Times editorial states, while “90 percent of Qatar’s population is made up of migrant workers,” among those being brought in to build the World Cup stadiums, “thousands of migrant workers — lacking education, often deep in debt, and with no recourse to justice — become their bosses’ de facto property” (Aziz & Hussain 2014). In essence, these laborers who are lured to leave their homes and families by the promise of good work and good wages are, instead, subjected to treatment that amounts to slavery. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, specifically forbids slavery or servitude, and Article 13 of that same document guarantees every human being, “the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” as well as “the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (UN 2014). Actions occurring in Qatar today are in direct violation of these universal human rights, and they cannot be allowed to continue.
A crucial problem with the building of the World Cup infrastructure relates to the physical safety of those doing the building. According to the International Trade Union Conference (ITUC), an average of 400 of the 1.2 million migrant workers already in Qatar die each year; with an additional 500,000 to 1 million workers expected to be brought into the country to work on infrastructure for the World Cup facilities, that death count would rise to about 600 per year, or some 4000 deaths over the course of the construction projects (ITUC 2014). Late last fall, Amnesty International reported on overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, noting also that workers were subjected to 12-hour shifts (Gibson 2014). A Human Rights Watch official bluntly commented several months ago that the workers’ conditions in Qatar “cannot go on like this” (quoted in Gibson 2014).
For its part, the government of Qatar has implemented an expanded inspection program for the various construction projects (Riach 2014), but the effectiveness or diligence of such a program remains to be seen. In a September 2013 report for NBC News, Alexander Smith observed that Qatari law prohibits forced labor and purports to enforce that law, and in that same report, he noted that the group overseeing the 2022 World Cup developments “released a statement saying it was ‘deeply concerned with the allegations that have been made against certain contractors/sub-contractors’” (A. Smith 2013). But despite these statements of concern, the deplorable working and living conditions for the construction workers persist, and the reports of injuries, deaths, and mistreatment have continued. In a particularly disturbing statement that seems to represent much of the official attitude, Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi woman who served as the architect designing one of the major World Cup venues remarked that the conditions represent “a serious problem but it [is] a matter for the Qatari government” (quoted in Reich 2014). Even FIFA, which Gibson reports has called upon Qatar “to provide evidence of meaningful progress” in the area of working conditions related to the World Cup, has stopped short of threatening to move the tournament elsewhere, saying that Qatar’s “status as host is not under threat” (Gibson 2014). Without imposing any meaningful consequences, there seems to be no viable plan for holding the host nation accountable for seeing that human rights violations do not occur.
In a report published in November 2013, Amnesty International compiled information it gathered from expatriate workers in Qatar. Those interviewed said that their employers were routinely “requiring them to work excessively long shifts without proper rest periods; not reducing workers’ hours during summer months; requiring them to work seven days a week; making workers pay for the renewal of their residency permits; and not providing adequate safety equipment” (Amnesty International 2013, p. 86). The human rights watchdog group gained a commitment from Qatar 2022 (often referred to as “Q22”), the group overseeing the preparations for the 2022 World Cup, that human rights considerations would be an integral part of all construction contracts, and that such contracts and considerations would be strictly enforced and monitored by both internal and external observers (Amnesty International 2013, p. 88). Still, based on experience to this point, it is difficult not to be skeptical of such promises. Clearly, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the growing numbers of mistreated, injured, and dead workers engaged in building facilities for the 2022 World Cup, and as the Amnesty International report says, the proof will come in actions, not just words: “It will
be essential that Q22 maintains its commitment to transparency, and provides full details on
how Stage 5, monitoring and enforcing, will be carried out, and what actions will be taken in
the event of non-compliance with Q22 standards” (Amnesty International 2013, p. 86).
Organizing and hosting a major worldwide sporting event is not a simple undertaking. This is true even for highly developed nations that have been the location of international competitions in the past. According to a BBC report a year after the event, preparations for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which were held in the cosmopolitan world-class city of London, with its well-established transportation and lodging facilities, and with many competition venues already in place, cost £8.77bn (equivalent to $132.21 billion in US dollars). This final outlay was over three times the original estimated cost, but it seems to have been a good investment, as the same report indicates, “the UK economy received a £9.9bn boost in trade and investment from staging the Games” (BBC Sport 2013). Certainly, any nation that makes a bid to host the Olympics must expect that the investment will pay off, whether in terms of financial profits, increased international prestige, improved reputation on the world stage, or some combination of these. Similarly, one can presume the same expectations of benefiting from hosting a World Cup summer underlie any city’s desire to host the games. The desire of the Qatari government to reap those rewards is not in question, nor should it be criticized. However, the costs to achieve those rewards must be weighed, and particularly considering the high price in terms of human life and human rights thus far in Qatar, the world must assure that “the prosperity that sports tournaments bring does not come at the price of workers’ lives” (Azziz & Hussein 2014).
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