The ugly side of the beautiful game

How slavery is paving the road to the Qatar World Cup.

For me, it was the blistering goal of an 18-year-old Michael Owen as England were defeated by Argentina in the 1998 World Cup in France which sparked my interest in football. I remember taking the day off school, dubiously ill as I tucked into popcorn and watched Owen electrify the living room and contribute to one of the most memorable games. Last year, like many, I was captivated by the classic tale of David slaying Goliath (or Goliaths) as I watched Leicester City overturn 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League title.

Most people, even non-fans, are likely to have their own moments which faultlessly signify the essence of The Beautiful Game. But behind the beauty, we are increasingly exposed to a dark and murky reality. From accusations of corruption at Fifa, to allegations of child sex abuse at clubs, to a former England manager giving advice on how to “get around” player transfer rules – football is increasingly defined by its less-than-beautiful undercurrent. In few places is that truer than in the preparations for the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

Qatar 2022: The dark truth

In 2010 Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 football World Cup – a decision which has since been plagued by accusations of serious injustices against the migrant workers (mostly from Nepal, India and Bangladesh) who are constructing the stadiums for the tournament. The growing criticism has highlighted poor working conditions including inadequate health and safety, unfit living conditions, and accusations of pay being withheld and passports confiscated. Under these conditions, many workers are living under slavery, forced to work against their will and denied permission to leave the country.

There have also been reports of workers paying huge recruitment fees of up to £1,000 to secure work.  Recruitment agencies in their home countries will find workers and help them get a job. Because of the high fees, many arrive in Qatar already saddled with a large debt to repay.

Once they arrive, workers in Qatar are literally being asked to risk their lives; reports have circulated about hundreds or even thousands of migrant worker deaths. According to a 2015 report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), by the time the World Cup kicks off an estimated 7,000 migrant workers could have died in Qatar. In June 2016 11 people died in a fire at one of the country’s labour camps which together house most of the estimated 1.8 million migrant workers. The ITUC linked the fire to the “shocking conditions” faced by workers living in the camps – including faulty wiring and other hazards.

In 2016, Amnesty International released a report of its findings after interviewing 132 people working on the Khalifa stadium, due to host one of the 2022 World Cup semi-finals, and 102 people working on the surrounding Aspire Zone sports complex. The report found systemic evidence of labour rights’ violations with most of those interviewed saying that their passports had been confiscated by employers and 88 having been denied permission to leave Qatar. Some employers were also found to be withholding residence permits. These are required under Qatari law, without which workers might be imprisoned or fined, and so many people were afraid to even venture outside of the work sites for fear of recrimination.

Modern Slavery

In December 2016 Qatar abolished its controversial Kafala labour system, used to control workers. The system required people to get permission from their employers and be granted an ‘exit permit’ in order to change jobs or leave the country. The Amnesty International report found evidence that while Kafala was in operation employers were ignoring requests and demanding that workers complete their contracts. These contracts can last up to five years. But human rights organisations argue that the contract-based law put in place to replace Kafala is nothing more than a rebrand and does not abolish the exit system. Employers appear to retain a stranglehold on power over their employees, including the ability to hold workers’ passports. According to the ITUC, a Qatari government committee set up at the end of 2016 to resolve permit disputes has denied exit to a quarter of applicants.

In both definition and practice, many workers in Qatar, including many of those working to stage one of the world’s greatest sporting tournaments, are bound by slavery. They form some of the estimated 21 million people across the world who are forced to work, bonded to an employer, treated as property, and have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement. Modern slavery is undoubtedly one of the greatest injustices of our age, and the international power behind the World Cup must be used to demand its end.

FIFA, football’s world governing body, has fallen despairingly short on its human rights obligations, and hope how lies with the institutions of the United Nations to take action. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is the UN agency responsible for holding countries to account on their obligations to workers’ rights. Made up of employer groups, trade unions, and government representatives, the ILO has the power to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and report on complaints received against international labour violations. This is the highest-level investigative procedure of the organisation.

In March 2016 the ILO ruled that Qatar should be given 12 months to end migrant worker slavery. That deadline passed last month and the ILO decided to extend its review period until November when it will decide whether to open a Commission of Inquiry – five years before the tournament begins. In the meantime, the world must continue to demand urgent justice for migrant workers.

Human Rights
Ben O'Hanlon

Ben has an MA in International Relations and Development studies from the University of East Anglia in the UK, where he explored power relations in the international garment industry. He has worked on a pioneering Security Sector Reform project in Lebanon, which has been successful in adopting a community model of policing as an alternative method of addressing the country's security challenges. He has also researched working conditions on banana and pineapple plantations in Ghana, and is a founding trustee of a charity which supports the advancement of better end of life care provision in the country. Based in London, Ben currently works for a human rights charity which challenges poverty and injustice by forming global partnerships and calling for systemic change.
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