Don’t let FIFA’s corruption distract from the atrocities in Qatar

Yesterday, Amnesty International released “No Extra Time,” a report about how Qatar is still failing on workers’ rights issues ahead of the 2022 World Cup. The basic premise of the report is what you probably already suspect from the title: Qatar doesn’t seem to be moving with the urgency needed to adequately address human rights violations in a reasonable time, despite righteous indignation from Qatari officials — the Emir himself expressed that he was “personally hurt about the situation” — and empty, but stern, words from the government about their willingness to enact vague reforms.

The report is definitely worth a read. But Qatari authorities aren’t the only ones painted in a poor light. Although not explicit in the report, FIFA, the world’s greatest non-profit, also comes out looking like soiled diapers. Essentially, to the extent that Qatar is guilty of violating international law by abusing the rights of foreign laborers, FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the Gulf nation makes it complicit in exacerbating those violations, which itself isn’t illegal, but is still pretty awful.

The world’s governing soccer body, not surprisingly, presents a different picture. FIFA “President for Life” Sepp Blatter frequently states that awarding Qatar with the World Cup can be an opportunity, a force for positive change, when faced with criticism over Qatar’s labor rights record. Just last year Blatter stated, “These very discussions about Qatar show just what an important role football can play in generating publicity and thus bringing about change.”

It’s a bizarre rationale when you think about it. It’s almost like saying that awarding [insert popular event] to [insert region with gross human rights violations] should be applauded for the potential good that may come out of it. Let’s try this out:

“Awarding the Olympics to apartheid South Africa should be applauded, because hosting the games could help shine a light on the government’s abuses and thus bring about change.”

Seems pretty ludicrous, doesn’t it?


Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

In reality, the opposite is probably true: Naming Qatar as hosts increased the burden on an already oppressed, largely foreign workforce.

Qatar needs to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. That much was clear from the outset, and explicitly noted when Qatar presented their 2022 bid to FIFA. But the stadiums are only the beginning of their massive constructions needs. They also have to build the entire infrastructure to support a World Cup, including transportation systems, hotels, and in many cases, effectively entire cities. Yet there aren’t enough Qatari nationals in the labor force to meet this demand. This would have been the case even absent the World Cup, considering Qatar has been rapidly building playboy paradise on steroids over the last decade. Thus, the need for an enormous migrant labor force.

Migrant workers flood to Qatar precisely because of this gap in the domestic workforce. Qatar has a population of approximately 2.2 million people, over 85 percent of which are foreigners. An overwhelming 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce is made up of expats. That creates an interesting tension. If these expats decided to up and leave — as is their right under international law — then there would be a labor vacuum, which Qatar can’t afford. Qatar’s strict labor laws, restricting the movement of foreign workers, exist to provide this certainty, to ensure that labor can’t move easily.

Presently, in Qatar, foreign workers are required to obtain a “No Objection Certificate” from their employers to leave the country or even change jobs while in contract. From a Qatari business’s perspective, this provides a level of certainty that their expat employees will be there in the morning to continue operating the business. This applies to both white collar jobs as well as manual labor jobs, such as infrastructure construction jobs for the World Cup.

And the preparations for a World Cup have ensured that there is plenty more work to be done. The Independent’s Tim Rich recently paid a trip to Qatar to scope out host cities. There he found “cities” like Al-Shamal, which he reports “has been granted a 45,000-seater stadium, which will seat nine times more than Al-Shamal’s total population. It will be like staging the Olympics in Nether Wallop.” Projects like this underscore Qatar’s desperate need to keep foreign workers around.

Essentially, even a rudimentary review of Qatar’s workforce numbers suggests that FIFA, when accepting host bids, should have been aware of the glaring reality that Qatar had a lot of construction to do. That alone should have raised questions about how projects would be completed, and by whom. Even a basic investigation into those questions should have raised concerns about egregious labor practices. All of which suggests that FIFA was extremely negligent in their review of Qatar’s bid, or it actually knew about the oppressive labor conditions for foreign workers and proceeded to award the Gulf nation with soccer’s biggest showcase anyway.

Qatar Looks To 2022 FIFA World Cup

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It’s also noteworthy that, for all of FIFA’s recent concern over slave labor conditions in Qatar, it was silent until in-depth reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Labour Union, and The Guardian, among others, came out. Without the public outcry, it’s highly unlikely that FIFA would have ever mentioned these dire conditions, even though the math and a rudimentary review of the pre-bid labor landscape should have revealed the flags.

Ultimately, while the focus after Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup has been on bribes and corruption during the bid process, perhaps more attention should be paid to FIFA not foreseeing or, more cynically, ignoring the labor issues that were on the table from the start. Even without the questions of corruption and bid rigging, the world’s governing soccer body continues to pile up fundamental questions. Can FIFA competently vet potential World Cup hosts for its ability to put on a tournament without leaving a trail of fundamental human abuses and broken bodies in its wake?