[Author: Manthan Dalwai, a student of Law at Jindal Global Law School, India]
Come November 2022, the biggest sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup, will unfold in the Middle East for the first time. As the global phenomenon grows closer, a glaring question becomes increasingly pertinent- do players and fans want to partake in an event that is built on the grave of workers’ human rights?
The Qatar World Cup has been marred with controversy from the beginning. Not for the first-time allegations of corruption and bribery were made against FIFA in electing the host nation. With regards to Qatar however, the issues do not stop there. Since winning the bid, Qatar has been heavily scrutinised over its treatment of its migrant workforce. There has been coverage including testimonials of migrant workers involved in the construction of stadiums and other related facilities who describe the appalling work conditions and abuse of their rights.
‘Positive Social Change’ in Qatar?
As Amnesty International documented in 2015, workers were “exploited” and “subjected to forced labour” in Qatar. Problems of delayed wages or in some cases altogether unpaid wages, exorbitant recruitment fees, deplorable living conditions were some of the other issues raised by workers. Withholding passports and key documentation to prevent the workers from leaving the country or switching employers were other such horrors.
In 2014, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (‘SC’), set up for the World Cup, introduced the Workers Welfare Standards (‘WW Standards’). In consultation with FIFA and other stakeholders, the second edition of the WW Standards was introduced in 2016 by the SC’s Workers’ Welfare Unit. As per the standards, an independent third-party External Monitor was appointed to further bolster the auditing and inspections process of implementation. Besides, SC’s requirements with regards to recruitment, employment, living and working conditions of those involved in the project was clarified. The SC targeted improvements to the conditions and the upliftment of the entire worker army employed in the project.
In 2017, Impactt Ltd., the external monitor submitted its first annual report on the WW Standards. The findings were based on 15,000 workers engaged in the World Cup infrastructure construction. The report stated that compliance was seen in the areas of working conditions which encapsulated health and safety, contracts and administration, and living conditions. There were however a few concerns that still needed to be worked on, such as, inter alia, reimbursement of recruitment fees or provision of important documents like residence permits.
Upon the reception of the findings, SC Secretary General, H.E. Hassan Al Thawadi, resonated with Sepp Blatter (former FIFA President) who in 2014 had spoken optimistically about the Qatari government’s disposition to use the World Cup as an opportunity to achieve social change. Thawadi added that his committee aimed at leaving a legacy for sustainable and meaningful progress around workers’ welfare. While the initial results showed promising signs FIFA and the Qatar were not been able to abate the persistent issues related to wages and withholding of documentation.
Qatar and FIFA’s Underwhelming ‘Progress’
In 2019, Benjamin Best, a journalist for Westdeutscher Rudfunk (WDR), went undercover and interviewed a number of migrant workers. Many spoke of the harrowing conditions related to unpaid wages which was directly affecting their day-to-day nourishment and subsequently their families, who had vicariously become victims. Inability to access papers which were held by the employers, as a result of which workers were unable to switch projects, was one of the most common issues. Bound by these shackles, the workers had no choice but to continue subjecting themselves to modern slavery, something that the Qatar Government was positive they could abolish.
Qatar has not only been a graveyard for workers’ rights but also one for thousands of workers themselves. While the numbers cannot be stated with certainty- The Guardian reports that since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, over 6,500 workers have died from the Asian sub-continent alone. WDR too reported several deaths in the migrant workforce to which FIFA vowed to investigate into. When speaking about the deaths reported in the 4th worker’s welfare report, Nicholas McGeehan, an expert on workers’ rights in the Middle East, said: “These nine deaths are from only the Supreme Committee’s World Cup workers, a tiny proportion of the Qatar migrant workforce.” In March 2021, Gianni Infantino said there had been “three worker-related fatalities since 2014” and 34 other deaths of people who were working on World Cup venues. The same 34 deaths were categorised as “non-work related” by the SC, a term used very vaguely. The use of “non-work related” has been vehemently debated upon because it has also been used in for categorisation of onsite deaths. These differing numbers and ambiguous statements from official sources only highlight the lack of transparency on the part of the SC, FIFA and the Qatar Government.
Qatar’s death toll is vast and multiple causes for death are listed, most common of which is “natural deaths,” attributed to suspected heart and lung failures. According to the Guardian’s research, 69% of the South Asian deaths have been listed so. And as McGeehan said, most of these migrant workers were only in Qatar because of the World Cup related developments. Fatalities classified under “natural deaths” are reportedly done so without proper autopsy and ‘legitimate medical explanation for the underlying cause of the deaths.’ This is the case even when hundreds of workers, mostly young, are collapsing to the floor dead. When addressing the death toll, Al- Thawadi stated that they were working with local universities to study the causes of the death.
Forensic investigation is not helped by the prevalent law of Qatar that restricts autopsies. In 2014, Qatar’s own lawyers had recommended the formation of a committee to study sudden and unexpected death of migrant workers. Hiba Zayadin, Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch said that her organisation too has called on the Qatar Government to amend its laws to require forensic investigating in cases of sudden and unexpected deaths. Deaths caused by fall from heights and blunt blows or respiratory failure, asphyxiation and intense heat related deaths are all clubbed together, which is easy to do since there is no meaningful procedure to determine exact cause for the deaths.
A Glimmer of Hope
In late 2019 the Qatar Government announced the abolition of the Kafala. The Kafala was in essence an employer sponsorship system which gave employers unbridled power over the movement of the migrant workers. Passed into law in August 2020, the new system ended a heavily criticised elements of the country’s labour system. Proper implementation of the system would mean that workers would have the opportunity to determine their own paths. For long they have been pushed into forced labour, but with the elimination of the ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC), a mistreated worker can walk away without needing permission form the employer.
Another welcomed move by the Government was the implementation of non-discriminatory minimum wage which would entitle migrant workers of all nationalities, spread across sectors, to an increased and equal minimum wage. In addition, the legislation stipulated amounts to be paid for food and accommodation in cases where the same was not provided. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicted the new laws to positively affect 20% of the private sector. On paper these reforms are a step by the Government towards delivering on the promise of social justice and a more efficient and productive economy. Qatar has often failed to implement its policies religiously. In light of the same, multiple workers and human rights organisations have stressed on the need for rigorous monitoring to curb employers cheating the system.
Qatar’s issues with labour rights were a documented issue well before the hosting rights were granted. While FIFA does endeavour to bring about positive social change through football, due regard should have been paid to the prevalent laws and the magnitude of construction that needed to be undertaken by Qatar. The positive changes that are highlighted are based on a minuscule number that come under the auspices of the SC. FIFA has not taken up adequate responsibility and therefore, failed to make a telling positive social change that can last beyond 2022.
*For any query, feedback or discussion, Mr. Manthan can be contacted at [firstname.lastname@example.org]
PREFERRED CITATION: Manthan Dalwani, 2022 Qatar World Cup: A Burial of Human Rights, SLPRR, <https://sportslawandpolicyreviewreporter.com/?p=1624> September 22, 2021.
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