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26 Jan 2023

Isobel Archer, BHRRC

A legacy for Qatar 2022: Football can no longer stand on the human rights sidelines

Shutterstock (purchased)

In 2010, Qatar boasted a single sports stadium and around 20 hotels - nothing like enough goalposts or beds to cater even for the 32 teams participating in this year’s World Cup. To host FIFA’s largest sporting tournament, a major infrastructure expansion was essential. A huge migrant labour mobilisation followed, with the population of Qatar increasing by over one million between 2010 and 2022. Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly from South Asia and East Africa, flocked to Qatar to take advantage of the jobs on offer, compared with the limited options on offer at home.

But instead of a better life, they instead found serious labour exploitation and human rights abuses. While migrant workers couldn’t have foreseen the harm they’d encounter, FIFA can claim no such ignorance. Had it carried out even cursory human rights due diligence before awarding the bid, this would have been abundantly clear.

Since 2016, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked 451 cases of alleged abuse of migrant workers in Qatar, with most affecting workers in construction, security, and hospitality - all workers integral to the staging of the world’s greatest sporting spectacle. Worryingly, these figures are just the tip of the iceberg and it is undeniable the jobs behind this abuse would simply not have existed if FIFA had not awarded the World Cup to Qatar. Years of campaigning, documentation and pressure from a global civil society movement, including unions, rights groups and activists, have led to important labour reforms, but systematic implementation is absent and abuse remains rife.

Earlier this year the Resource Centre was surprised by football associations’ woeful engagement with these rights risks. Our requests for them to disclose the steps they had taken to respect workers’ rights were met with embarrassingly thin responses - even where they have direct influence: e.g. the selection of hotels and other service providers. Despite their clear international responsibility to respect human rights, almost all national football associations hid behind opaque assurances from FIFA, which in turn frequently deferred to the World Cup organisers. Human rights due diligence has been scant, and the serious engagement on migrant workers rights that could have made a real difference for some of the most marginalised - on whose back the good functioning of the tournament rested - was almost entirely absent. Now the stadiums stand empty and teams and fans alike have returned home, there are little more than tick box exercises to show for the human rights record of World Cup 2022.

Hotel brands hosting the teams have demonstrated little better commitment to human rights. Eight hotel brands hosting teams have been associated with allegations of abuse at their properties or through their supply and recruitment chains to the Gulf. Since 2016, hotels have been implicated in 23 cases of alleged worker abuse in Qatar with 14 cases of alleged abuse of workers employed by hospitality companies.

During the tournament a Filipino worker at the Saudi team hotel died in an alleged accident. There’s been only silence from their employer, Salam Petroleum, the hotel owner and brand Katara, and the Saudi football association in response to the incident. In October, the security provider at the French team’s Marriott hotel – United Security Services (USS) - was terminated after reports of poor living and working conditions emerged. At the Dutch team’s hotel (also a Marriott), a subcontracted worker described paying recruitment fees and then going unpaid during the COVID19 pandemic. It is deeply disappointing none of the football associations called for remedy and mitigation measures to ensure these incidents don’t recur. The security company replacing USS at the French team’s hotel, GSS Certis, is already associated with four historic cases of alleged abuse – yet it is unclear what due diligence was undertaken prior to the appointment.

Qatar 2022 has shown football associations are starting to understand more is demanded from them on human rights - although the LGBT OneLove armband debacle demonstrates they must build expertise and engage with human rights due diligence in a more profound and impactful way . Unfortunately, discussion exploring the link between football associations’ participation and the suffering of workers who toiled to make that participation possible has been non-existent.

Now the final whistle has blown - interestingly, on International Migrants Day, 18 December - attention should turn towards 2026, when the tournament will be hosted jointly by Mexico, the USA and Canada. Football associations must actively participate in discussion on their human rights responsibilities and make clear the labour standards they expect from contractors: tournaments can no longer come at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable or poorest. Collectively football associations can hold FIFA to account for its decisions. A legacy of Qatar for football and sport more broadly would be to ensure international labour and business and human rights standards are at the heart of future tournament awards, and associations must recognize the impacts of their own operations.

Football has always sold itself as being one of the most democratic sports – accessible to all no matter your background. Qatar 2022 exposed the cracks in that marketing ploy. The organisers of the World Cup 2026 and national governing bodies should seek to mend them.