In a full-throated defense of 2022 World Cup host nation Qatar, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a press conference on Saturday, “Today I feel Qatari, today I feel Arab, today I feel African, today I feel gay, today I feel disabled, today I feel a migrant workerâŠbecause I know what it means to be discriminated, to be bullied.â
Criticizing the West, and Europe in particular, for migration policies, corporate profiteering off of Gulf oil, and “what we Europeans have been doing for 3,000 years around the world,â Infantino tried to draw attention away from multiple controversies plaguing the 2022 World Cup.
FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, is expected to bring in $6.5 billion in revenue from this yearâs World Cup, a 25% jump from the 2018 games. Infantino himself made $3.2 million in 2019 alone.
Meanwhile, over 6,500 workers have reportedly died in construction for the games since the World Cup was awarded in 2010 to Qatar, reflecting widespread safety hazards and labor abuses.
Labor Recruitment and Exploitation
Migrant laborers have been forced to pay billions of dollars in fees since 2011 to “recruitment agenciesâ in order to secure jobs at companies contracted to build the stadiums in which national teams will compete over the course of the tournament.
According to numerous human rights observers, workers have faced nonpayment of wages for up to a year, wage theft, severe mental health issues, 14-hour workdays, and a range of other abuses and poor conditions.
âWho in the world aside from billionaires can afford not being paid for 10 months or a year?â said Namrata Raju, the India Director for Equidem, a London-based human rights organization that has issued several critical reports on labor conditions in the Gulf.
Among the findings of Equidemâs most recent report, titled “If we complain, we are fired,â are reports of forced labor, workplace violence, health-and-safety issues and nationality-based discrimination. The report is based on conversations with about 1,000 workers conducted over the past three years, including 60 in-depth interviews.
One anonymous Kenyan worker cited in the report says, “Supervisors would hit us in front of other workers to pressure us to work faster and complete our work on time. This physical abuse was never addressed.”
Conditions in Qatarâs leadup to the World Cup have been under fire for years since the country was awarded the games in 2010, and are part of a more general set of labor problems under the Gulfâs kafala system. This labor regime closely ties the low-wage migrant workers that the regionâs economy depends on to their employers and leaves them with almost no voice and subject to massive abuses.
Human rights groups have reported that up to 10,000 migrant workers from South Asia, the Philippines, and other countries die in the Gulf each year.
After international pressure, the Qatari government has undertaken reforms since 2017 to mitigate the worst of the abuses, entering into an agreement with the International Labor Organization.
The reforms included a minimum wage increase, an end to requiring “exit permits” for migrant workers to leave Qatar, and the ability to change jobs without permission from the employer. The ILO reports mixed results, but abuses are reportedly continuing even as the World Cup gets underway.
Equidemâs Raju says the situation remains “dire” for migrant workers in the country. She describes the reforms as “lip serviceâ because of a lack of enforcement and notes that labor unions remain illegal for migrant workers in the country. Strikes and protests by migrant workers are also illegal in Qatar.
Equidem is urging Qatar to set up a migrant workersâ center to allow workers an avenue to complain without being “terrified of some kind of punitive action,â in Rajuâs words.
The “first step [is] for workers to feel safe,â Raju says.
Qatarâs government has argued that the criticisms it has faced are the product of anti-Arab racism, with the country being targeted on issues ranging from the freedom of the press to LGBTQ+ rights.
At least one former World Cup migrant worker who In These Times spoke with agreed that Qatar has been selectively targeted, even though the anti-worker abuses are real.
Md. Emran Khan reported having worked 14-hour-days in Qatar as a technical assistant making and testing concrete for Qatari contractor Advance Construction Technology Services from 2016 to 2018.
âIf it was in the U.S. or Europe, would the media be paying this much attention to worker abuses like these?â he asked in Bengali.
Khan now works for the Awaj Foundation in Bangladesh assisting prospective, current, and former migrants. He argues that Qatar is the best migration destination in the Gulf for South Asian migrants.
Racism in Labor System
But Raju at Equidem argues that if Qatar were serious about racism, it would address the racism inherent in its labor system.
âI would ask them, if [they understand] what racism means, why do they have a two-tier labor system?â she asked.
In the Gulf, different labor rules apply to migrants, who are predominantly African, South Asian and Filipino workers, leaving them in a much worse position than nationals and citizens of other Arab countries. For example, Qataris are allowed to form trade unions, while migrant workers are not.
Raju says, “Weâre asking [FIFA] to compensate all of these workers [in Qatar]. So many workers have not been paid.â
A returned Nepali migrant worker pseudonymously titled “Hariâ in a video released by Human Rights Watch describes how he worked in Lusail, Qatarâs second largest city, where, he says, “there wasnât a single building anywhereâ when he arrived.
âNow there are towers everywhere. We built those towers,â says Hari.
Equidemâs report also notes “a pattern of egregious worker rights abuses during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2018 World Cup in Russia.â For example, workers in Brazil worked 84-hour weeks and there were also thousands of evictions of working-class residents to make way for construction.
FIFA, Qatarâs government, and Qatarâs body in charge of its World Cup preparations, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, did not respond to requests for comment.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 22, 2022. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is contributes news and blogs concerning labor to In These Times.
Learn more about workers’ rights, at Workplace Fairness.