Qatar World Cup 2022: The ‘Beautiful’ Game

This world cup should be set in stone as a reminder of failure of our collective conscience where some lives were deemed more important than others.

The FIFA World Cup, scheduled to be hosted in Qatar in December, will undoubtedly be one of the defining events of 2022. This is the only the second World Cup to be held in Asia (the previous one was hosted jointly by South Korea and Japan in 2002). It is also the first world cup to be held in the winter, owing to sweltering summer of Qatar.

FIFA recently announced that within the first twenty days of the sales period, fans had already applied for 17 million World Cup tickets. All in all, the World Cup is expected to draw an estimated 1.5 million foreign visitors to the country, giving Qatar an economic boost close to $20 billion. However, this comes amidst controversies surrounding the world cup, from allegations of Qatar buying votes from voting members of FIFA to be declared hosts in 2010, to the rampant human rights abuse of migrant workers involved in World Cup related projects.

Human Rights situation in Qatar

It is reported that more than 6,500 migrant workers from Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh have died in Qatar since 2010. The actual fatalities are expected to be higher after taking into account the deaths of workers from other countries such as the Philippines, Nigeria and Kenya. These numbers average around deaths of 12 migrant workers per week for the past 12 years and can be imputed to construction of stadiums, roads, railways, airport and an entirely new city.

This blatant disregard for human rights of migrant workers can be sourced to the kafala system. The kafala is a system of governance of labour that is native to the Middle East. This system grants disproportionate power to the employer (the kafeel) over employment terms by making it mandatory to sponsor any worker before granting them entry into the country. While, technically, all foreign workers require such sponsorship, inequalities exist in the case of ‘migrant workers’ who do not enjoy negotiation powers over their employment contracts (as opposed to high income earning ‘expats’). Additionally, this system obligates workers to obtain permission from their employers if they wish to leave or change their employment or even exit the country (with some employers also requiring their workers to deposit their passports). If the employers report any of the workers for absconding, the workers face may arrest, imprisonment or deportation.

In a place where such an exploitative system is deeply entrenched, abuse of the workers is bound to be commonplace. To this extent, Qatar has emerged as one of the ‘global hotspots’ of modern-day slavery. Workers toil for up to 20 long hours without adequate water in extreme heat.

Workers are often promised high wages prior to their recruitment, however, such contracts are discarded or modified upon arrival in Qatar, and wages are withheld. Their living conditions, in accommodations provided by the employers, are unsanitary and without proper ventilation.

Human rights activists refer to the untimely deaths of many young, able-bodied employees as “unnatural deaths” as a result of a lack of adequate nourishment combined with harsh physical labour in extreme circumstances. Apart from deaths, as a result of working incredibly long hours in extreme heat, thousands of migrant workers who have returned home from Qatar, are diagnosed with chronic kidney ailments with many of them requiring regular dialysis.

As more people and activist groups have voiced their protests against the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, the government and their spokespersons have played down most of the allegations. The World Cup organizing committee of Qatar has reported mere 38 deaths till date, with a claim that 35 of these deaths were non-work related.

Qatar introduced labour reforms in August 2020, which includes the implementation of a revised minimum wage of 1000 Qatari Riyals (approx. $275) per month. Moreover, this reform abolished the requirement of employers’ approval for workers quitting or changing their jobs, in an aim to cripple the kafala system. The Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (MADLSA) stated that reforms would be implemented completely in the six months of introducing them. While human rights groups have welcomed these efforts, the implementation has not been as promised. Workers claim that there have been no significant changes in their working conditions and changing jobs or quitting still remains a Herculean task for the migrant workers.

Is Qatar in violation of international law?

In 2018, with pressure from the international community ahead of hosting the World Cup, Qatar finally agreed to ratify two multilateral treaties- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), two focal instruments in present day international human rights law. Ratification of these treaties imply that Qatar is now legally obligated to guarantee and protect the fundamental human rights for all residing within the country, including that of the migrant workers.

In addition, Qatar is a member of the International Labour Organization and has ratified some key conventions such as the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930, and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957. The ICESCR guarantees rights to safe working conditions, fair wages, and reasonable working hours, none of which are implemented. Freedom to movement is one of the pivotal guarantees made by the ICCPR, and if implemented in line with the intent of the instrument, no migrant worker can be prevented from returning home, contrary to what has been happening routinely. In light of aforementioned conventions and multilateral treaties, practices that are rampant in Qatar are in gross violation of safeguards that these instruments guarantee.

The liability of FIFA, its sponsors and other stakeholders

The FIFA, a non-profit body, is the highest international governing body of football around the world with 209 member countries. Article 3 of its statute provides that “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.

Back in 1961, FIFA was the first international sporting body that imposed sanctions on South Africa during its apartheid regime, which culminated in South Africa’s global sporting and political isolation.

However, one could argue that FIFA has not maintained the same sanctity of the game given the numerous allegations of corruption made against the body. In 2020, United States Department of Justice claimed that FIFA officials had accepted bribes from Russia and Qatar in exchange for awarding the countries with hosting rights of the World Cup for 2018 and 2022 respectively. The US Department of Justice indicted three senior FIFA officials on counts of bribery. While the decision as to which nation is selected as the host is based on the voting of FIFA member countries, Qatar’s successful bid raised many eyebrows across the globe, mainly due to the fact that the country, at that time, did not have adequate infrastructure to host the world cup.

In July 2019, FIFA admitted to the abuse of human rights committed against the workers in Qatar through a press release and stated that they would undertake an investigation in the matter. In that press release, FIFA alleged a sub-contractor but did not imply any liability on the host state. Activists called upon the sponsors of the World Cup to act on the human rights abuse of the workers in Qatar.

Coca-Cola and Visa, two of the major sponsors of the world cup, each released their statements claiming that they have expressed their concerns to FIFA. Another issue that was raised was that of Qatar’s stance on homosexuality, as it is a criminal offence in the country and can be punishable by death. As a response to these concerns, the World Cup Committee of Qatar announced that it would comply with FIFA rules of promoting tolerance and rainbow flags will be allowed in stadiums at the world cup. However, there has been no change in law of the nation and the stance of the country on homosexuality largely remains the same.

A large number of stakeholders including activists, human right groups and footballers have called for the boycott of the Qatar World Cup with some countries such as Netherlands, Germany and Norway expressing their dissent on the conditions of the workers in Qatar by wearing human rights t-shirts at their games. However, some ten months ahead of the world cup, a boycott seems very unlikely. If no action is taken against Qatar for the rampant disregard for human rights over the past decade, it could set a very dangerous precedent for the future of human rights and football.

The way forward

The 2018 Football World Cup clocked more than 3.5 billion viewers across the world. Given the massive following of the sport, FIFA must demonstrate a high level of accountability to prioritize human rights and other fundamental values over corporate gains. It is imperative that the values of FIFA and the fundamental human rights must be protected throughout the process of hosting the sporting event.

In order to avoid such violations of human rights in the future, workers must be allowed to form trade unions as a matter of right so that they can engage in collective bargaining in a more effective manner. The decision to award the World Cup should not be set in stone and should be made reversible. An independent body must be constituted in which certain seats must be reserved for human rights groups, for effective monitoring and implementation of the applicable international law as well as FIFA values. The said body must be vested with the rights to impose sanctions so that breach of laws can be addressed, with immediate effect.

With around ten months left before the start of the world cup, it is widely expected that the world cup will go ahead as planned. However, the world cup 2022 in Qatar should be remembered as a tainted lesson in history where corporate greed was prioritised over values of humanity and equality. This world cup should be set in stone as a reminder of failure of our collective conscience where some lives were deemed more important than others. Let this world cup be remembered as a moment when the beautiful game did not seem as beautiful anymore.

Akshya Aryal
Akshya Aryal
Akshya Aryal is a lawyer based in Nepal