Recent news reports have revealed a plethora of issues regarding abuse of migrant workers in Qatar, ranging from more than 60 hour workweeks, dangerous working conditions and poor, unsanitary living conditions including lack of potable water. With the 2022 FIFA World Cup construction under way in Qatar, there has been a huge surge of migrant workers employed in the country, adding to the already giant population of migrant workers representing the highest ratio of migrants to citizens of any country in the world, as well as an increase in awareness of the issue. These workers have been employed to build structures including stadiums and a new metro system, for the soccer tournament, a worldwide event watched by viewers from all corners of the globe.
The workers, many from Southeast Asia, often have their passports confiscated when entering the country, restricting their movement, and many have reported “slave-like” working conditions, earning less than $4,000 per year and being forced to work 12-15 hour days in sweltering temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Reports published in the past few months claim many workers have died from heart attacks, likely a result of heat exhaustion. Some workers claim that bed bugs are common within labor camps, and that it is not unusual for 10 beds to be crammed into a very small room. Most labor force abuse boils down to the Kalafa system, a very restrictive sponsorship system which requires employer approval for a worker to change jobs, leave the country, and prohibits many types of lobbying for workers’ rights. Under the system, it is not unusual for a worker to pay high “recruitment fees” to be brought to the country, often forcing them to work without compensation to pay off debt.
Qatari officials have promised labor reform, and some laws have been passed, but many of the laws are hardly, if at all, enforced. For instance, minimum wage laws, legal limits on working hours and the right to form unions have been passed, but are usually ignored by employers and not enforced by the limited Qatari labor organization.
So with the current state of migrant workers in Qatar, is there a place for FIFA in pushing for reform in the country? Yes. FIFA has a responsibility to make sure labor reform occurs. The 2022 World Cup will be an integral part of the economy of Qatar over the next nine years and beyond, but the lives of workers from all over Southeast Asia must not be sacrificed to produce an even faster growing economy in this oil-rich Gulf country. FIFA must work together with the Qatari government and labor organization to push for reform, or to even abolish, the Kalafa system, allowing for free movement of the migrant workers, giving them the ability to travel home to visit their families. It is not unusual for a worker to not see their family for two years. Reform needs to take place to allow for more time off.
With any reform that takes place, FIFA needs to ensure that the appropriate mechanisms are in place to allow for new laws to actually be enforced. No matter what laws are passed and what labor reforms are enacted, history will repeat itself if the framework of the current system is not changed. FIFA, as an outside organization, must push for the government to follow through with its actions, and when it fails to do so, reprimand it. FIFA must also be fully aware of all working conditions and treatment of workers as well as living conditions for migrants and must place representatives within Qatar to monitor the situation. They must work diligently with Qatari officials on these issues and inform them of their concerns as well as continually update and inform the public.
With the help of FIFA and the recent spotlight on working conditions in Qatar, many of these issues can be rectified. FIFA has the option to leave Qatar and move the games elsewhere, but this will have consequences not only on the Qatari economy, but also on all of the migrant workers livelihoods that rely on the jobs created by the World Cup. Therefore, FIFA must use all of its available means and influence the Qatari government to change the lives of these workers, improve their way of life and in turn, help provide for their families back home.
Tidenberg is a senior majoring in real estate finance and human rights.