Fans watch a World Cup qualifying match, in Doha, between Qatar and South Korea, in June. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Al Omari
Fans watch a World Cup qualifying match, in Doha, between Qatar and South Korea, in June 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Al Omari

In recent days, many national soccer teams have been playing qualifying matches in an effort to secure a spot among the 32 nations that will feature in the next World Cup, in Qatar in 2022. As millions of fans indulge in the spectacle that is the buildup to the grand global showcase of “the beautiful game” in Qatar, it’s disheartening that the sport’s world governing body, FIFA (International Federation of Association Football), and the Qatari authorities entrusted with organizing and hosting the next World Cup cannot seem to get a handle on the abuse and exploitation of foreigners employed to ensure the country’s readiness to host the tournament.

Even before Qatar was selected to host the World Cup, many experts, observers and journalists who cover the sport viewed its bid as controversial. As is now widely known, suspicions of money-laundering and corruption were gaining traction and had come to be associated with FIFA’s bidding process. The Swiss government in 2015 launched a major investigation of various FIFA officials suspected of having rigged the bidding process associated with the selection of Qatar.

While Qatar’s image was somewhat tarnished as various quarters of the international community beyond those who closely followed the sport took notice, at least for a while, the corruption scandal did not derail the country’s selection to host the tournament.

Beyond these scandals, however, has simmered another long-standing controversy implicating Qatar’s government. Despite persistent media and human-rights groups’ reports of the abuse inflicted on migrant workers, little, if anything, seems to have changed.

Indeed, since construction efforts ramped up after Qatar’s selection in 2010, there has been no shortage of reports in the international media of hundreds of deaths resulting from the abuse of foreign construction workers.

The kafala system of control and administration of foreign workers in Qatar (and across the Arab Gulf region) has long been described as reminiscent of indentured servitude, if not slavery. The now all too routine reports of workers not being paid their wages for months, let alone being subjected to grossly sub-par working conditions, being deprived of basic amenities, coupled with constraints on their movement or ability to terminate their employment, casts another dark cloud over FIFA and Qatar. Indeed, it raises serious questions about their respective responsibility in all the known and unknown deaths of unprotected workers lured to help – directly or indirectly – prepare Qatar for the soccer spectacle in 2022.

FIFA, as a sporting body, is no stranger to becoming entangled in prominent political and social causes of significance. In 1963 it was arguably at the cutting edge of the international struggle against apartheid when it suspended South Africa. Fast-forward to 2017 and we find FIFA affirming its commitment “to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and [striving] to promote the protection of these rights.” Indeed, FIFA has documented some of its claimed efforts to monitor conditions for workers at soccer-related construction sites in Qatar.

Yet several labor and human-rights experts have repeatedly singled out the kafala system of regulating migrant labor in the Gulf states as a conduit for, if not a regionally institutionalized version of, indentured servitude, one that has been found wanting with regards to protecting the rights of migrant workers in Qatar.

FIFA’s response thus far to many of the claims of human- and labor-rights violations appears to be that there is no evidence for negligence on its part. According to FIFA, “We have no reason to believe the reported violations of workers’ rights are in fact linked to FIFA and the 2022 World Cup.”

FIFA – and Qatar, for that matter – can’t have it both ways. FIFA can’t claim to respect “all internationally recognized human rights” while conveniently distancing itself from violations allegedly linked to the 2022 World Cup. Ultimately, FIFA is invoking an artificial and arbitrary distinction. Migrant workers serving the Qatari economy are invariably contributing – directly or otherwise – to that country’s ability and readiness to host the global spectacle that is the World Cup.

With reports from Qatar’s own official statistics suggesting that more than 1,000 migrant workers die each year in a country with just under 2 million such workers, it’s clear that by the time many of the sportsmen playing in qualifying matches arrive in Qatar in late 2022, thousands of lives will have been literally sacrificed for the spectacle.

It is indeed unconscionable for FIFA to distance itself from the day-to-day mistreatment, abuse and inhumane exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar, while it continues to posture on human-rights issues.

Despite the goodwill and the administrative steps that may have been taken in conjunction with the Qatari authorities, and we know that there have been some, it remains clear that the entrenched kafala system that subjugates migrant laborers is in need of fundamental and radical overhaul.

FIFA and the Qatari authorities have treated this matter like a political football, while thousands of lives directly or indirectly connected with bringing the beautiful game to the world perish.

There is little doubt that between the scandals of corruption and money-laundering associated with FIFA officials and the selection of Qatar, the next World Cup will be a badly stained one. Few will know any of the names of the nearly destitute foreign workers who will have made it possible for players of the game to chase glory on the soccer field.

This much is clear: While many of the aspiring teams continue to dream about a path to the tournament in Qatar, for many of us fans of the game, FIFA and the Qatari authorities have already lost by scoring several own goals in their handling of the treatment of migrant workers.

Sunil Kukreja

Dr Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound. His areas of academic expertise include multicultural studies, social and cultural change, and the political economy of South and Southeast Asia. Professor Kukreja has published widely in academic journals and edited several books.

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