Qatar World Cup 2022 – A humanitarian catastrophe

Living in squalor and conditions unfit for human habitation, so far removed from the luxury of even the modest of football players. The reality of many workers building the Qatari football dream, is stark.

Ask football fans to name their idols. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would all be instantly recognisable. Here is one for you, do you know who Noka Bir Moktan is? Why is he so important, more so than the superstars of the sport?

 

Whilst players commit themselves to periods of self-sacrifice on the pitch. People like Moktan give their lives to creating a footballing legacy. Moktan was one of the thousands of workers to have died during construction phase of Qatar’s World Cup dream.

Just 23-years-old, the Nepalese worker was said to have had a cardiac arrest, the Observer newspaper have reported he was displaying signs of long-term and sustained ill-treatment. Moktan was one of workers employed to construct the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.

There have been significant concerns raised by humanitarian organisations. Many have stipulated they believe that thousands of workers have been subject to human rights abuses.

Amnesty International conducted a report into the issues facing FIFA – The dark side of migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup. It’s well worth a read and highlights key and fundamental issues regarding the human cost of hosting the world’s most lucrative and popular sporting event.

The same organisation has found evidence that contractors building infrastructure for the World Cup are withholding payments from workers, subjecting employees to dangerous living conditions and even confiscating their passports, essentially leaving them stranded in Qatar, unable to return home or seek the right to remain. That’s even before we get to the thousands of pounds spent by workers for safe transit to the Arab state.

Indications suggest that the work force solely dedicated to delivery for the World Cup in 2022 will swell to an astonishing 1.2 million which is just above half the entire population of the peninsular, currently standing at 2,342,725. Those two figures alone give a great deal of context and the colossal scale of the construction work needed in Qatar.

Qatari authorities have hit back against claims of human rights abuses, claiming political interference. In a press release issued as a direct response to The Guardian newspaper’s allegations of human rights abuses, the under-secretary to the ministry of labour said:

This is an effort to undermine Qatar and an attempt to spoil its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, a conspiracy driven entirely by political motivations.

 

There was a search for indirect excuses to achieve this goal, among them the releasing of false reports not linked to the facts around the situation of the workforce in Qatar.

The Qatar government have also insisted that the system has been overhauled in recent months. As the ministry of labour outlined:

We believe that the people helping us build our country deserve to be fairly paid, humanely treated and protected against exploitation.

 

That is why we are reforming our labour laws and practices. We intend to effect meaningful and lasting change for the benefit of all those who live and work in Qatar.

Qatar is by no means alone in being accused of human rights abuses. The United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights highlighted concerns over Brazil’s staging of last year’s tournament and the subsequent Olympic Games next year after issues were raised by local community groups in host cities.

United Nations special rapporteur for housing, Raquel Rolnik, found significant breaches of human rights and displacement. Brazilian authorities were deemed to have evicted people without forward settlement, as well as instances of child labor violations, discrimination and force used on protesters, some evidence of which was seen in British mainstream media before and during the tournament.

Rolnik’s assessment was revealing:

I am particularly worried about what seems to be a pattern of lack of transparency, consultation, dialogue, fair negotiation, and participation of the affected communities in processes concerning evictions undertaken or planned in connection with the World Cup and Olympics.

 

I am also concerned about the very limited compensation offered to the communities affected, which is even more striking given the increased value of real estate in locations where building is taking place for these events. Insufficient compensation can result in homelessness and the formation of new informal settlements.

Lessons have not been learnt and the same mistakes are being made again.

FIFA chief Sepp Blatter in an interview in January, responding to the growing evidence of abuse in Qatar was clear in his direction.

I will tell you, that human rights and other rights will be part of the basic conditions to organise the competition. That will be new for the next World Cup – the World Cup 2026.

Whilst it is encouraging to read a change of direction in FIFA’s forward planing and ethical delivery of tournaments, its track record has been woefully short of international standards both in response and execution. It is more concerning that in a meeting with His Highness the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani regarding human rights abuses, Blatter was quoted as saying on FIFA.com:

It was important for me to have an opportunity to get the latest information directly from the highest political authority, ahead of the Executive Committee meeting next week.

 

It is encouraging to hear the Emir’s personal commitment to workers’ welfare and to get a sense of the improvements planned for all workers in Qatar.

 

As various human-rights groups have recently noted, progress has been made already, especially with regard to the standards introduced by the Supreme Committee relating to 2022 construction sites, but more must be done in Qatar to ensure uniformly fair working conditions for all.

 

This will only be possible through the collective effort of all stakeholders – from the construction companies to the authorities. It is clear that Qatar takes its responsibility as host seriously and sees the FIFA World Cup as a catalyst for positive social change.

Despite the level of evidence that goes beyond the anecdotal, FIFA are in effect kicking the problem into touch. What message does that send?

Added to this, The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy the organisation given the responsibility of actually delivering the World Cup in 2022 have given assurances that the ‘Kafala System’ which gives sponsors sole control over employee visas, wages and even mobility. Many organisations have aligned this practice to back door exploitation and slavery.

 

The International Trade Union Confederation chief Sharan Burrow was explicit about the heightening death toll in Qatar. Speaking to BBC editor Dan Roan in February this year, Burrow was unrelenting and frank about Qatar’s and FIFA’s responsibilities.

The death toll is not decreasing.We know from just two sources – the Indian and the Nepali figures – that more than 4,000 workers will die before a ball is kicked in Qatar. It needs to act like a decent global citizen.

 

The Kafala System is still in place. It’s a system of slavery in the 21st Century and it must change if Qatar is to find its place in the modern, civilised nations that respect that people have human rights.

 

FIFA could have acted two or three years ago. They could have said, and they can still say, that the World Cup won’t go ahead without labour rights.

 

The Qataris want the World Cup – this would force them to change. But while FIFA has the burden of slavery attached to its games, then nothing will change if they don’t make a stand.

The ITUC has released further evidence of the mounting pressure needed to be exerted by FIFA to get a grip of human rights abuses in Qatar. As Burrow previously outlined to the Guardian newspaper:

The evidence-based assessment of the mortality rate of migrant workers in Qatar shows that at least one worker on average per day is dying. In the absence of real measures to tackle that and an increase in 50% of the migrant workforce, there will be a concomitant increase in deaths.

 

We are absolutely convinced they are dying because of conditions of work and life. There are harrowing testimonies from the workers in the system there. The 2022 World Cup is a very high-profile event and should be implemented with the very highest standards and that is clearly not the case.

One worker was also quoted as saying:

We’d like to leave, but the company won’t let us. If we run away, we become illegal and that makes it hard to find another job. The police could catch us at any time and send us back home. We can’t get a resident permit if we leave.

Long hours and hard-working conditions are a consistent problem. Some workers, according to Human Rights Watch, are paid a staggeringly low wage – $6.75, or approximately £4, a day, in sweltering heat without adequate health care.

HRW, in their report ‘Building a better World Cup’, found that workers due to the poor wage, cannot even afford to repay their recruitment loan, perpetually keeping workers in debt and unable to feed themselves to an adequate standard.

It’s inexplicable given the level of evidence against Qatari authorities, that FIFA have failed to get a hold of the situation. It leads to a fundamental question of how the bid process is even carried out given the level of layers of the bid process and the criteria needed to even being considered as a host country.

It seems mind-boggling that, given the less than stringent labour laws in place and the human rights record in both Russia and Qatar, those nations were even given consideration in the first place. Hosting major sporting events should be a reward for fairness and equality, reserved for states holding the values of human rights and inclusion.

Football fans lambasted FIFA for allowing Qatar to dare to disrupt the normal rhythm of European Leagues, the conditions that the players would have to play in, the comfort of the spectators, and the fact that even alcohol could not be consumed during games.

All these mitigating factors are drowning out some very hard facts. It is the greatest insult to those workers giving their lives, all so supporters can drink iced cold drinks in air-conditioned stadiums.

 

FIFA is by no means alone in its failure. The International Olympic Committee has also had to address concerns over its ability to ensure basic human rights are protected, Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016 being recent examples of failure to keep organisation delivery authorities in check.

As a global football community from the humble football fan right up to highest echelons of the sport, we all must be clear – delivery of a football tournament should always have a condition of protection of human rights. For the very integrity of the game FIFA needs to act decisively in this seemingly forgotten area of policy. What sort of message does it send to undermine basic human rights?

To also recognise the free press to report on the ongoing human rights abuses. This is highlighted in great detail by the arrest of BBC journalist Mark Lobel and his team in Qatar, arrested for trying to talk to migrant workers and seeking clarification on whether conditions had improved, in-line with fresh assurances by Qatari officials that better working practices have been implemented.

It seems that where money talks, everything else is secondary. We have seen protection from discrimination of sexuality, race, disability and faith all being a cursory after-thought in the last two decades in the hosting of major international sporting events. It is those core values of ethics that are integral to the sport. And for a decent human cohesive society.

Football is the world’s favourite pastime, with a global sporting reach unmatched. The power of the sport is often used for good, from utilising its reach to engage with communities to help them bring them out of poverty to enhancing living standards due to community based football projects.

Players are using their names to bring about social change, for example The Didier Drogba Foundation which is working towards creating educational opportunity and basic health care for all in the Ivory Coast.

Football has the power to change, it needs to send out a message that human rights matter.

There is always massive pressure to deliver a successful World Cup, where billions are transacted in sponsorship and other revenue deals, to ensure international reputations are forged or maintained, whereby everything is done legitimately to deliver the promises made in bid dossiers.

There is a cost in delivering a high level tournament, and you really have to ask yourself if the subjugation of human rights and the mounting death toll a price worth paying?

For more information on the workers’ rights situation in Qatar check out @playfairqatar

The Author

Lisa Higgins

Appreciator of the finer elements of la Liga, Seria A, MLS, bundesliga and Ligue 1. Women's football proponent. Published on the BBC, football supporters magazine, she kicks.net and many more. Views are my own, you may not agree but hey we live in a democracy, so I'll take it on the chin if you don't. But we all know we love the beautiful game.

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