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Horrors of the Beautiful Game

Staff writer Charli Oakeby discusses the human rights infringements involved in the Qatar World Cup project, questioning the apathetic attitudes of those in power about the conditions facing migrant workers.

It’s May 28 2020, Nepal. Mrs Bipana Gharti is waiting for a nightly call from her thirty-four-year-old husband, Tul Bahadur. Just like always. He works on a construction site in Qatar. But last night he went to sleep after working a ten hour shift in temperatures succeeding 39°C.

He never woke up.

Migrant workers make up 95% of the Qatari workforce. Like the majority of them, Mr Gharti had no underlying health conditions. He had passed all of his medical checks. He left everything he loved in Nepal, including his wife, in pursuit of the Middle Eastern ‘dream’. He wanted a better life. Instead, he met his death.

Since being awarded the 22nd FIFA World Cup in 2010, the Qatari government has injected $220 billion into its preparations. It is a tournament of firsts: the first since the pandemic; the first to be held in the Middle East; and the first to be constructed on the foundation of migrant labour exploitation.

“My husband was set on fire. I feel like I’m burning in oil.”

These are the harrowing words of the widowed Mrs Gharti. Her husband was only one of thousands to suffer at the mercy of this great Qatari tragedy. In February 2021, The Guardian revealed that 6,500 migrant workers had died in the country in the last decade. Qatar’s decision to build 7 new football stadiums for the World Cup was nonsensical and inhumane: one of the most foreseeable risks to workers’ lives is exposure to this extreme heat. The same heat that set Mr Gharti ‘on fire’.

What has conditioned, and justified, this culture of relentless laboural exploitation? One of the answers lies within the kafala system. Emerging in the twentieth century, the kafala system has since cast an ever-darkening shadow over the working practices in Gulf states. The system itself is essentially a foreign sponsorship scheme between employer and employee – but it grants the employer extensive rights and creates an overbearing power dynamic.

Under these regulations, some migrant workers cannot leave the country, or even their jobs, without their sponsor’s permission. Companies involved in the construction of the World Cup have forced workers to stay by denying them promised salaries (wage theft) and withholding their passports. Exploitative, abusive, and shameless – for too long, employers have been able to manipulate migrant workers with little chance of legal repercussions.

Qatari plans to abolish the kafala system in 2014 were delayed for two years and even still proved inconsequential. The government then signed an agreement in October 2017 promising substantial labour reforms targeted at helping 2 million migrant workers. “The new guidance from Qatar signals the start of real reforms which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations on workers’ rights” said the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

If this is the case, why have an average of 12 migrant workers died every week since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010?

Human rights charity Amnesty International has been a prominent voice on these issues, criticising the Qatari government for failing to investigate the deaths of migrant workers. A further investigation carried out by The Daily Mirror discovered that 28,000 of those working on the World Cup stadiums were being paid just 750 Qatari riyals per month. That’s a wage of under £1 per hour – well under £50 a week. How can this still be happening in the richest Arab country?

Qatar has failed. FIFA has failed.

Dollar signs glow in their eyes while they look the other way.  Their distraction has allowed thousands of migrant workers to be trapped in conditions of forced labour. It’s shameful FIFA doesn’t require labour protections of any sort as a condition of hosting. “FIFA will continue its efforts to enable remediation for workers who may have been adversely impacted in relation to FIFA World Cup-related work in accordance with its Human Rights Policy and responsibilities under relevant international standards.” Their post-hoc attempts at ‘remediation’ are insufficient and pathetic. The organisation has gone through restructuring since Qatar’s bid was accepted, but we are yet to see if this will bare fruit.

The decision for Qatar to host this World Cup was senseless. The tyrannical pressure on migrant workers, who are already severely over-worked and under-paid, is a blatant abuse of human rights; the worst revival of ‘modern slavery’.

It may be the most expensive World Cup to date, but for what? When the tournament ends, will it – can it – have been worth it?

64 games.

Multiply that figure by 100 and you get the number of migrant workers who died within the last decade on Qatari construction projects. Some died just for those 64 games, that mere 100 hours of entertainment.

Football should never put freedom in jeopardy. The World Cup is propagating the exploitation of migrant workers – this has no place in our beautiful game.

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