Concerns over a return to inhuman working conditions in Qatar ahead of the Football World Cup in 2022 do not appear to have been unfounded. In March 2019, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK and Europe, the African Human Rights Heritage, and the Gulf Association for Rights and Freedom, accused the secretary general of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, Ali Bin Samikh Al Marri, of covering up the deaths of around 1200 foreign workers engaged in the FIFA stadium construction project.
As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, multiple allegations of malpractice have started to surface. In fact, over the last 10 years both Qatar and FIFA themselves have faced a great deal of controversy.
In the past Qatar has been accused of violating the human rights of foreign workers, forcing labourers into involuntary servitude. There have been reports from international NGO watchdogs of foreign workers being beaten, not being paid and not being permitted to travel over the duration of their ‘contract’. Additionally, in 2017, Qatar was thrust into a precarious position as five of its neighbours cut off diplomatic ties with the nation, accusing Qatar of supporting radical Islamic groups, including the Islamic Brotherhood.
Likewise, FIFA has also undergone several controversies in recent years. In 2015, FIFA drew the attention of the international community as it became embroiled in case after case of financial corruption through bribery, fraud and money laundering. While these scandals did lead to the removal of a number of important individuals in the FIFA hierarchy, it does not seem that this was enough to effectively change the culture of the organisation. FIFA has allegedly been working closely with Qatari officials, alongside the International Labour Organization (ILO) to make sure that workers are being treated correctly through the infrastructure development process. However, FIFA has continued to be accused of not doing enough. With Qatar’s financial involvement in the global football industry, FIFA’s reluctance to apply increased pressure does not come as any kind of shock!
The original proposal for Qatar 2022 was to develop a 32 team tournament schedule to play in eight stadiums, all within less than a 50 km radius. However, FIFA’s latest initiative is to expand the number of teams from 32 to a hefty 48, thus increasing the number of matches, and number of stadiums needed. FIFA thus needs to move beyond the borders of Qatar. This will create several challenges, as Qatar is restricted due to the ongoing disputes with its neighbours, and several of the other countries being considered to support Qatar have themselves a history of discrimination and restrictions on human rights.
At a recent session of the Sports Intergroup of the European Parliament, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) expressed their profound vexation over the ramifications of this decision. This topic has already been the subject of in-depth analysis by the European Parliament’s Human Rights Sub-Committee on several occasions.
MEP Marc Tarabella stated “The discussions exposed profound worries, if not outright opposition, to such a proposal. The reasons for this are simple to understand: we remind FIFA of its commitment to sanction human rights, transparency and sustainability criteria in the World Cup candidacy and hosting process, something that is partly based on the adoption of FIFA’s own human rights policy. We do not only seek to remind of that commitment, but ask all those to whom it applies to be faithful to it.”
Most significant is the concern that a short timeline for the creation of new stadiums, in countries already known for human rights violations, will leave migrant workers vulnerable and open to abuse. MEPs outlined a series of vulnerabilities including the exploitation of labourers; discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and religion; restriction of rights, the freedom of peaceful assembly, of association and of expression; and threats to human rights defenders. Due to these severe concerns, the Sports Intergroup have formally requested that FIFA consider postponing the decision taken to expand the number of competing teams in order to fully respect and support human rights.
It is important that both FIFA and Qatar continue to be scrutinised throughout this period to ensure that they are committed to respecting and supporting the human rights, transparency and sustainability criteria that were agreed to during the World Cup candidacy and hosting selection process.