Qatar Logo in Chains

Notes: The Slavery Side of World Cup Soccer



If you follow soccer at all, you probably agree that FIFA is synonymous with corruption.

As we’ve learned since the FIFA Scandal erupted in 2015, much of the income of the so-called “non-profit” went into the pockets and personal bank accounts of its officers and those of the football associations that represent the 209 member nations. For a great summary of 40 years of FIFA corruption, watch Planet FIFA.

To understand how much money FIFA makes, consider that during 2011-2014, FIFA averaged around $2.5B in annual revenue. That’s about 1/100th the size of Apple Computer, and is a huge amount of money for a non-profit. FIFA claims it reinvests 72%, or $1.8B, back into football each year. But this article is about one side effect of the corruption and hubris engendered by so much unaccountable money.

Under Sepp Blatter, FIFA decided to grow the global game by hosting the World Cup in countries that did not have the existing infrastructure to do so. First was South Africa, then Brazil, Russia, and finally Qatar. In all of these nations, large infrastructure projects were required to accommodate matches, tourism, and mass transportation. In South Africa and Brazil, neighborhoods were displaced, and new stadiums were built with money that protestors felt should have been spent on health, education, and welfare.

In addition, when their WC tournaments ended, South Africa and Brazil were saddled with stadiums they could not use. For details, watch Fahrenheit 2010 (WC 2010 in South Africa) and March of the White Elephants (WC 2014 in Brazil). Clearly, in under-developed countries, hosting a World Cup is a poor use of taxpayer money, and it is often staged by politicians as an intoxicant for the people.

We may never know the true downside of WC 2018 for Russian citizens. Opposition, protests, and the news media are suppressed under Putin’s virtual dictatorship.

Qatar is also a dictatorship that suppresses the media, but its small docile citizenry sees no reason to complain. Qatar sits on top of massive natural gas reserves, and its 300,000 subjects comprise the wealthiest citizenry in the world.

However, Qatar does not have enough citizens to build 9 new stadiums, renovate 3 stadiums, build 70,000 hotel rooms, and construct the infrastructure needed to host over 3 million visitors in one month. The country also doesn’t have enough citizens to serve, clean, cook, drive, guard, etc., all those fans, Qataris, and white collar workers.

As a result, Qatar imports an estimated 1.7 to over 2 M migrant workers. Most are men from impoverished countries where work is extremely scarce. In the beginning of Qatar’s boom, migrants came primarily from South and Southeast Asian countries: India, Nepal, Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Nepal, for example, in 2018 is still sending almost 9,000 workers per month to Qatar.

Once WC 2018 ends in Russia, it is expected that Qatar will step up the pace of construction, and its employment needs will increase 3-4 times. Thus, they are increasing recruitment from African countries.

Qatar’s despotism and its migrant worker program, Kafala, drive exploitative practices that the media and democratic governments tag as human rights abuses. As applied in Qatar, “human rights abuse” and “labor abuse” are just euphemisms for slavery. Sadly, these worker abuses existed long before Dec-2010, when Qatar was granted the 2022 World Cup. But FIFA chose to ignore these labor practices, perhaps because they were standard for many oil-rich Arab countries.

A number of investigative reporters and researchers have captured the abuses on film. There are so many documentaries and exposés, and they somewhat overlap, so I will first summarize the abusive methods. I will follow that with summaries of the individual films.

How Workers are Abused in Qatar

Under kafala, a migrant worker must be sponsored by an employer, who is commonly a third party recruiter and is not the actual building contractor. In his own country, a worker may take on an onerous loan, at 2 to 4% monthly interest, in order to pay the recruitment fee (10 to 20% of annual wages) and travel to Qatar. Once the worker is in Qatar, his identity documents are confiscated by the recruiter, who also insists that a new labor contract be signed, usually at half the agreed upon rate.

Under kafala, the worker cannot change employers. Without identity documents, the worker cannot leave Qatar at will. Now stuck in Qatar, he is packed into substandard housing, poorly fed, and forced to work long hours, every day, in unsafe conditions. Health care is not provided, and there is no sick pay. Many times there is no pay at all, or it is grossly delayed. The worker has no rights and is virtually enslaved.

Qatar’s Response to Adverse Publicity

In 2014, due to efforts by investigative journalists, filmmakers, and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the growing abuses were publicized. They discovered at least 1,200 construction workers had died; 684 from Nepal, with 185 dead Nepalis in 2014 alone. The death toll was projected to hit 4,000 by 2022. People called for FIFA to drop Qatar as a World Cup host.

In response, the Qatari government directed The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, known as the Supreme Committee or SC, to design and institute migrant worker reforms. Some law changes were made, creating a Workers Charter, but enforcement was not implemented. The real effect of the Workers Charter was to enable the jailing of reporters for taking photographs of abusive conditions.

By 2016, the abuses had continued without abatement, and more film exposés and articles were published. The SC brought in consultants Impactt Limited to independently monitor progress.

By the end of 2017, Qatar had instituted enough reforms that the International Labor Organization (ILO) closed its complaints against Qatar. In Feb-2018, the SC published its Workers’ Welfare Website , which provides guidance and metrics about the reforms Qatar has instituted.

The Labor Reforms are Superficial

Unfortunately, it appears that progress is only for appearances. In its Mar-2018 report, Impactt only monitored 19 contractors, who were mostly working on “SC projects”, which were not clearly defined. The scope of the report represented only 18,000 workers, and on page 26, it says:

“…the total number of issues per contractor among Main and Tier 1 contractors remained relatively constant while for Tier 2 it increased by 27%. The SC is mindful of this trend and, as a consequence of the improvement in the contractor self-audits and the pre-approval process for subcontractors, it has virtually eliminated Tier 3 [sic] contractors from its projects”.

In the above quote, I believe Impactt meant Tier 2 instead of Tier 3. There is no definition in the report for Tier 3, whereas Tier 2 contractors refers to the “manpower agencies” (recruitment agencies) who contract to a contractor. Tier 2 contractors are the major employers, but only two Tier 2 contractors were included in the report. To me, this implies that the SC is choosing not to enforce Qatar’s new Workers’ Welfare laws on the worst agencies, partially because they were a growing problem unable to address their issues. Since over 40% of migrant workers are employed in construction, we must assume that equals at least 680,000 men. Therefore, the SC is monitoring only around 2% of the migrant workers.

As a result, labor abuse continues in Qatar, as documented in a Jan-2018 article in the Himalayan Times, and a May-2018 article on regarding 1,200 stranded workers.

Sadly, the Impactt report was enough for FIFA to proclaim Qatar well and good, and to let the Games continue despite the virtual slavery being used to produce the WC.

Films to Watch about Slavery in Qatar

  • 2016: Dirty Games – I first got into this topic of modern slavery after reviewing this documentary by Benjamin Best, a German investigative reporter. He goes to Nepal and has extensive interviews with the government and Nepali people. He also covers other corrupt practices such as payoffs to select the WC 2022 host and the displacement of Brazilians for WC 2014. The film also covers match-fixing in the NBA, boxing, and Turkish football.
  • 2015: Football Hell – This 44-minute exposé from Johnny Miller shows many examples of the squalid living conditions and the fear that workers have about revealing their plight. Miller even visits a Qatari official who angrily says that they are doing their own investigation, thank you very much.
  • Watch the Trailer or Watch the Movie  (also on Amazon Prime in the USA)
  • Jun-2014: “A 21st Century slave state” | Qatar World Cup 2022 – ESPN 60 posted an 8-minute video. The title is taken from the declaration by Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation:

“Qatar is a slave state in the 21st Century”

  • May-2018: Unboxing the real price of sneakers American shoe vlogger Jacques Slade learns while unboxing, that the shoes you buy may be made by slave labor. While this isn’t about soccer or Qatar, the shoes from the Thomas Reuters Foundation give you a good summary of modern slavery. The vlogger initially wonders,

“Is #SlaveMade the brand?”

  • Ask yourself that question, and act accordingly.

What Can You Do?

The fastest way to reform FIFA is to stop giving it your money. And here are some other opportunities: