Qatar 2022: Corruption and Exploitation in the FIFA World Cup
Earlier in May of this year the Al-Janoub Stadium, the first newly constructed stadium built for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, was inaugurated in a spectacular opening ceremony attended by FIFA President Gianni Infantino and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
The 2022 World Cup is a significant one, being the first held in the Arab world and in a Muslim-majority nation, Qatar is also the smallest host nation in the history of the competition. Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world due to its large oil and gas reserves, surpassed only by Liechtenstein in terms of GDP per capita. The country has used the 2022 World Cup as an opportunity to present a modern and progressive image of itself to the world. Particularly visible in Qatar’s bid for the World Cup was the emphasis on sustainability and environmental concerns, ensuring that the stadiums and infrastructure for the event are constructed using environmentally friendly materials and technology. Qatar pledging that stadium cooling systems, vital for holding a sports competition in a desert country, will use ecologically sustainable technology to ensure player and spectator comfort.
Yet behind the innovative buildings and high-tech infrastructure being constructed for the competition lies a far more sinister story of corruption, exploitation and human rights abuse.
The decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in the Gulf state has been mired in controversy. The 2010 bidding process that awarded Russia and Qatar the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has drawn heavy criticism from journalists and sports experts, having been described as “the biggest corruption decision in the history of sport” following a series of bribery and corruption allegations implicating numerous senior officials on FIFA’s executive committee.
In May 2011 a leaked email alleged that Qatar bought the World Cup through bribery, a whistleblower who had worked for the Qatar bidding committee alleged that payments of $1.5 million were made to three officials in exchange for supporting Qatar's bid. However the whistleblower, identified as Phaedra Almajid, later publicly retracted her statement, saying that she fabricated her story to “hurt” the Qatari bid after losing her job.
Fresh allegations came in 2014 when FIFA was beset by corruption scandals. In May 2014 the Telegraph revealed that the FBI was investigating former FIFA vice president Jack Warner, for overpayments of almost $2 million made to Warner and his family by a Qatari firm involved with the successful 2022 bid. Later, in June, the Sunday Times allegedly obtained millions of unreleased secret documents that they claim prove Qatari official Mohammed Bin Hammam made payments worth $5 million to various football officials in exchange for the support of Qatar’s bid. Claims against Qatar and those accused of receiving payments have strongly been denied.
By 2015, 14 senior FIFA officials had been charged with accepting bribes worth a total of $150 million. In November 2017, as part of a broader investigation into corruption in FIFA, sworn witness testimony emerged stating that a senior FIFA vice-president, and Argentinian football association head, Julio Grondona, had taken over $1 million in bribes in exchange for supporting Qatar’s World Cup bid, providing some of the strongest evidence that the vote for the 2022 World Cup had been bought by Qatar.
A report commissioned by the Foundation for Sports Integrity put the figure for Grondona’s bribe at $4.8 million, alleging that substantial commercial deals via Qatar Airways and the redeeming of $66 million dollars of debt held by the Argentinian FA were also used to influence the vote in Qatar’s favour. Of the 22 committee members who voted on the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, 11 have either been fined, suspended or banned for life due to corruption-related offences.
While the extent of corruption and abuse of office involved in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding is enough to call the legitimacy of the decision into question, a far more serious and unsettling, yet often unseen, issue has arisen: the exploitation of migrant workers in the construction sector.
Construction of the stadiums and infrastructure required for the competition has led to vast numbers of migrant workers being recruited from South and South East Asia to fill the high demand for labour in the construction sector. In 2018, Qatar was estimated to host over 1.5 million migrant workers, comprising 90% of the total labour force. Many journalists and human rights organisations have drawn attention to how the kafala system, the legal framework organising and monitoring migrant labourers, by placing migrant workers in a separate legal category outside of full citizenship, creating the conditions for a highly exploitative and uneven power relationship between workers and their employers.
Migrant workers are required to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa arrangements and legal status. This system hence gives the sponsor a high degree of control over their employees. Sponsor permission is required for foreign workers to change jobs, leave the country, open a bank account or even apply for a driving license.
Non-payment of salaries is a frequent complaint reported by migrant workers. An investigation by Amnesty International in 2018 revealed that Mercury MENA, an engineering company involved in infrastructure construction and the building of a “showcase stadium” for Qatar’s World Cup bid, had persistently been failing to pay their employee’s salaries. Amnesty International examined the cases of 78 former Mercury MENA employees from Nepal, India and the Philippines, finding that most were owed between 5000 to 9000 QAR ($1370 to $2470). One senior worker who had worked for Mercury MENA for over a decade was owed 89,907 QAR ($24,692) in unpaid salary and benefits. Due to the high fees charged by many agencies in the migrants’ countries of origin, many guest workers arrive in Qatar with an already significant financial debt.
Blackmail is also a common practice among employers. Researchers for Amnesty International witnessed 11 men signing papers falsely claiming they had received their wages so they could get their passports back from their employers and leave Qatar. More shocking still are the living and working conditions the migrant workers are subject to. A 2013 Guardian investigation into the Qatari construction industry found that Nepalese workers, sleeping twelve to a room in cramped and squalid accommodation, without regular access to food and drinking water, working 12-hour shifts in temperatures reaching up to 50℃, were dying at a rate of one per day. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) stated in 2013 that, without major labour reforms, the construction boom associated with the 2022 World Cup will be expected cost the lives of approximately 4000 migrant workers at a rate of 12 per week.
The high degree of control sponsors have over their workers, coupled with frequent cases of withholding payment, confiscating travel documents and the inhumane working conditions migrant workers are subject to have led many international observers and labour rights groups to describe the kafala system as a system of modern day, de facto slavery.
The exploitation of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf is neither isolated to Qatar nor the 2022 World Cup. Oil-rich states in the Gulf have traditionally used their oil revenues to guarantee their citizens comfortable, high-paying jobs in the public sector while hiring workers from South and South East Asia to fill necessary manual labour roles. Beyond Qatar, the kafala system has also been associated with migrant worker abuse in other states in the Middle-East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report describes the abuse and exploitation of Sri Lankan migrant workers under the Saudi kafala system. As in Qatar, unpaid wages was the most commonly cited complaint. Of the 86 workers interviewed for the report, 63 had not received their full wages by their return to Sri Lanka. There is also a significant gender dimension to the abuse of migrant workers. 28 of those interviewed had experienced sexual harassment or assault from their employers or agents. In October 2018, Indonesian domestic servant Tuti Tursilawati was tried and executed in Saudi Arabia after killing her employer, pleading self-defence after her employer tried to rape her.
Since 2016, the increased scrutiny Qatar has faced has led the government to gradually implement reforms to the kafala system. A series of reforms introduced in late 2016 established state-run “grievance committees” to which workers can appeal if denied permission to switch jobs. This reform allowed workers who had completed their contracts to switch jobs freely and imposed fines for companies that confiscate their employees' passports.
However, Amnesty International argued that the changes “barely scratched the surface” of an exploitative system, arguing that the basis of the kafala system remained intact. More significant strides were made when, following an agreement with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2017, the Qatari government expressed a commitment towards dismantling the kafala system. The government are putting in place a minimum wage for foreign workers and granting migrant workers freedom of association, as well as a framework for organising and resolving disputes with employers, under the guidance of the ILO.
A major development was the passing of Law No. 13 of 2018, which amended regulations on the entry and exit of foreigners by eliminating exit visas entirely, allowing migrant workers the freedom to leave Qatar without the permission of their employers, a decision welcomed by the ILO and ITUC as a “huge step for workers rights and the end of the kafala system for migrant workers in Qatar”. However, the bill still has limitations, as it does not apply to military personnel, domestic workers and those in the public sector.
Ultimately, the publicity that the 2022 World Cup brings to Qatar means that the government will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to the condition of migrant workers in the country. The competition will give the Gulf nation an opportunity to lead by example in a region where the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers have been a long-established tradition. Although the extent to which new laws protecting the rights of migrant workers will be enforced remains yet to be seen, the Qatari government, largely in response to criticisms that journalists and human rights groups have publicly brought forward, appears to be willing to engage with bodies such as the ILO in reforming labour laws for foreign workers.
Qatar should continue to focus on building a comprehensive framework of rights for foreign workers, including guaranteed contracts and salaries backed by state authority, reasonable working hours, conditions, a fair minimum wage and sick leave. More importantly, the government should ensure that any laws passed protecting the rights of foreign workers are properly enforced. Journalists and human rights groups should also continue to make efforts to draw attention to labour rights abuses in the Gulf more broadly, not solely focusing on Qatar or the 2022 World Cup stadiums.
If attempts to replace the kafala system and protect the rights of foreign workers are successful in Qatar, in the long term this could give other states in the Gulf region a model to follow in reforming their own laws and bringing them up to international labour standards.