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Labor Trafficking in Qatar: Has the World Cup Brought Progress or Pain?

As we approach kickoff of the first matches of the 2022 World Cup, an expected five billion viewers will watch as brand-new stadiums and the luxuries of Qatar built on the backs of forced labor are put on display. How should we, as global citizens and sports fans, handle the moral and ethical implications of consuming the World Cup this month?

First, we must address the context and background of the 2022 Qatar World Cup. The concept of a Qatari World Cup has been tainted from the start. In 2010, FIFA announced its decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and, surprisingly, the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. In 2011, Phaedra Almajid, a former media officer of Qatar, alleged that Qatari representatives bribed three football officials $1.5 million each to secure the country’s bid. An investigation by FIFA into their own conduct found no foul play and then-president Sepp Blatter emphasized that the bid decision was final and irreversible.

In 2011, Qatar began construction on its World Cup stadiums. The government obtained laborers for this project under the Kafala system, mainly coming from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Kafala is a form of forced labor authorized in Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Put simply, the Kafala system binds a worker to a Kafeel, or sponsor, who has full control of their contract, wages, working conditions, and immigration status. Kafala has been widely criticized as “21st-century slavery,” and in 2014 Amnesty International exposed human rights violations occurring in Qatar such as “appalling living conditions,” delayed salaries, inability to leave the country, and threats to their lives if they try to leave.

Following global criticism, Qatar implemented reform laws removing exit permit requirements, setting a non-discriminatory minimum wage, and removing requirements for employer permission to change jobs. However, while these laws provide optimism for the future, they were put in place after nine years of World Cup stadium construction had already taken place.

Additionally, it is difficult from the outside to perceive the strength of the enforcement of the laws.

For example, the Qatari government reports that of 15,000 deaths in the country by non-citizens, less than forty were related to work or working conditions, but independent investigative reports have found the number of work-related deaths to be approximately 6,500. Further, Qatar claims that there have been zero deaths in the construction of World Cup stadiums, but critics argue this number is illegitimate. Typical construction death rates over such a long period of time are approximately 1%. In Qatar’s published reports, 69 to 80% of deaths of migrant workers have been attributed to “natural causes,” and therefore under Qatari law, no autopsies were conducted to find the true causes of death.

So, how should we react? It is important we acknowledge both the history of oppression and the modern steps being taken toward progress. Qatar’s successful World Cup bid directly resulted in an influx of migrant laborers under the Kafala system, thousands of whom lost their lives. However, the Kafala system was in place long before the World Cup bidding process began and continues to propel a modern-day slavery system in many Gulf countries.

Because of the global spotlight put on an oft-overlooked country with a population of fewer than three million people, real legislative progress has been made. Criticism and subsequent change did not happen overnight and came only after a decade of oppression, trafficking, and wrongful death. But the reality is that today Qatar stands at the forefront of labor reform among Lebanon and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

While the sacrifice of lives in Qatar cannot be quantified or justified as “worth it” because no lives should be lost to implement these changes, we can acknowledge the positive changes to Qatari society in which the World Cup has played a role.

Further, we must keep in mind that Qatar’s progressive reform and leadership do not mean it is living up to a moral human rights standard. Even since these reforms, either because of ineffective enforcement or continued governmentally authorized oppression, many laborers in Qatar are still not being treated fairly or given fundamental freedoms.

Instead of taking this momentum of progress to drive further change, FIFA has urged the competing nations to “focus on football” and depoliticize the tournament. This is the exact opposite of global social accountability, and further tarnishes FIFA’s already sullied reputation, adding to the long list of corruption and controversial errors shadowing the governing body. Fortunately, many countries are pushing back by announcing plans to wear armbands in support of anti-discrimination, create a worker’s compensation fund, and wear all-black uniforms to mourn migrant worker deaths in Qatar.

In addition, Fox, the official broadcast partner of the World Cup in the U.S., has agreed to “avoid coverage of Qatar’s controversial treatment of migrant workers during World Cup broadcasts.” This disappointing decision, clearly tied to revenue and likely under pressure from FIFA, severely limits the free speech rights of announcers and commentators whose platform will reach millions of potentially uninformed viewers. To combat this stifling of information flow, it is critical that other media outlets and we as viewers make a point to keep this conversation alive. The power of the internet and social media can be leveraged toward driving further progress in the wake of dismantling the Kafala system and ultimately achieving a positive social impact out of a World Cup that has historically had disastrous effects on the lives of laborers.

Therefore, this month, I hope we all choose to watch the World Cup in an engaged and passionate manner, not only as fans but also in advocacy of the social and human rights implications of the tournament.

Matteson Landau is a JD Candidate (Class of 2024) at Pepperdine University


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