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In 2010, FIFA announced that Qatar would be the first Arab state to host the World Cup in the winter of 2022. The announcement instigated many debates over the legitimacy of the World Cup bid and there were many accusations of corruption involved. Qatari officials denied these claims of impropriety but the controversy surrounding the 2022 tournament did not stop there. In the 12 years between site selection and the start of the first match, a light was shone on the human rights situation in Qatar and regrettably, what was revealed was far below optimal.
The thousands of migrant workers who made the construction and delivery of the World Cup possible were subjected to the abysmal working conditions that define the Qatari labour system, and despite promises that ‘everyone is welcome’, the LGBTQ+ community continued to suffer from the violations that Qatar encourages. Although the World Cup appeared encouraging in shining a light on these injustices and over the past decade, we have seen unprecedented positive changes to the Qatari labour system, is it arguable that FIFA, with their influence and responsibility, along with Qatari authorities, have not done enough to rectify these wrongs.
Qatari citizens make up about 10 per cent of the population, meaning most of the country are foreign nationals, largely migrant workers from South Asia. It is therefore understandable that Amnesty International estimates a total of 1.7 million migrant workers were involved in building the immense infrastructure required to pull off a successful tournament.
When Qatar took on the task of hosting the World Cup in 2010, it only had 1 football stadium suitable for hosting a match. This meant that over 12 years, Qatar built 7 new stadiums, 100 new hotels, a new international airport, a new rapid transit system, and several new roads and highways. Estimates of the cost of these projects range between $200-$220 billion, more money than has been spent on any other World Cup. Not only was the monetary cost of this tournament incredibly great, so was the personal cost for the migrant workers who dedicated themselves to it.
Over the past 12 years, there is no doubt that many migrant workers have lost their lives or have been severely injured because of poor working conditions at World Cup construction sites. Human rights organisations have put the death toll in the thousands as the sudden and unexpected deaths of many young workers has gone uninvestigated by Qatari authorities and is likely to be much higher than the “three work-related deaths and 37 non-work-related deaths”, the authorities have confirmed. An in-depth investigation into work-related deaths and injuries in Qatar by the International Labour Organization, revealed that in 2020 alone, 50 workers lost their lives, 500 were severely injured and 37,600 suffered mild to moderate injuries. These deaths and injuries are the consequences of dire working conditions, including excessive working hours (Qatar’s Government Communication Office told Amnesty International that it had detected 230 “excessive working hours violations” between October 2021 and August 2022), lack of rest days, arbitrary or disproportionate financial penalties, underpayment of overtime work, and long periods in searing heat (the tournament was moved from summer to winter to avoid these extreme conditions, but workers were not given the same protection).
In addition to the grave physical cost of the tournament, migrant workers were subjected to severe financial injustices, with many continuing to face wage abuse and exorbitant recruitment fees. The Qatari Supreme Committee released an audit in 2021 that found 68% of workers paid an average of USD 1333 in recruitment fees. Consequently, many workers fell into debt bondage and were unable to leave their job, leading to cases of abuse and penalties. As a result, not only were the families of these workers forced to face the tragic consequences of unexpectedly losing a loved one, but all too often they were also left with the financial burden of the debts that had built up.
Given the gravity of this situation, there has been great demand for a remedy fund to compensate these workers. For example, on May 17th, 2022, a coalition of human rights organisations, delivered an open letter to Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, demanding that no less than USD 440 million (equivalent to the prize money awarded to the participating teams) be set aside to remedy the abuses workers faced, a fraction of the record-breaking revenue of USD 7.6 billion that FIFA earned. FIFA announced in November 2022 that the World Cup Legacy fund would take a more global approach and focus on education projects and the creation of a labour excellence hub. Whilst this is promising and necessary, FIFA and Qatari authorities have used this and recent labour reforms as a defence and have subsequently failed to fulfil their responsibilities and obligations regarding human rights protection. On the 8th September 2020, Qatar became the first country in the Gulf Region to enact a notable change to the kafala system by allowing workers to change job without a No Objection Certificate from their employer. A higher minimum wage was set for all workers, regardless of nationality and a minimum wage was set for migrant workers, only the second country in the Gulf region to do so. The Supreme Committee in Qatar which was the body responsible for organising and delivering the World Cup infrastructure also introduced initiatives such as the Universal Reimbursement Scheme which aimed to reimburse workers who had to pay illegal recruitment fees. These reforms were radical and are certainly reassuring for the millions of migrant workers who settle in Qatar, however, for many workers these reforms came too late and were only partially enforced, while most workers essential to the preparation of the World Cup also fall outside these initiatives. The Universal Reimbursement scheme, for example, covers fewer than 50,00 workers. When addressing the calls for compensation for workers, Qatar’s labour minister argued that the 2020 Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund would cover these issues, yet the fund is limited to wage theft claims, not addressing any injuries or deaths and is also rife with obstacles, making it virtually inaccessible and meaning abuses continue.
Michael Llamas, chairperson of the FIFA Sub-Committee on Human Rights and Social Responsibility, delivered an assessment of the human rights situation and the measures taken before, during, and after the World Cup, at the 73rd FIFA Congress in March 2023. In his speech he focused heavily on these structural reforms and applauded their success. However due to the narrow scope of workers that these policies initiatives covered, it is arguable that there is a lot more to be done by FIFA and Qatari authorities to remedy the thousands of workers and families who were victims of these injustices.
Regrettably, the World Cup also shone a light on the ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression in Qatar. Journalists were banned from filming in certain locations, fans waving rainbow flags and showing support for protests in Iran were harassed by security, and despite multiple reassurances from World Cup organisers that ‘Everyone is welcome’, FIFA told teams they would be sanctioned for wearing “One Love” armbands. Qatari women continue to face discrimination in both law and practice. Amnesty International has highlighted that women still need the permission of a male guardian to marry, study abroad on government scholarships, work in government jobs, travel abroad under the age of 25 and to access reproductive healthcare.
There is also disparity between men and women’s right to divorce, with laws in place making it more difficult for women and often putting them at a severe economic disadvantage, and weak criminal code provisions on assault means there is no law to prevent domestic violence and no measures to protect survivors and prosecute abusers. The LGBTQ+ community in Qatar continually suffers from arbitrary arrest and severe ill-treatment in detention, including extreme beatings and sexual harassment, based solely on their gender expression. Under Article 296 of Qatar’s penal code, men are subjected to between one- and three-years imprisonment for ‘instigating’’ or ‘enticing’ another male to “commit an act of sodomy or immorality.” Under article 285, the penal code punishes extra-marital sex, including same-sex relations, with up to seven years imprisonment. When Human Rights Watch interviewed six people from the LGBTQ+ community who have experienced such abuse, their arbitrary arrest and detention was based on Law No. 17 from 2022 on protection of community. This allows for provisional detention without charge or trial for up to 6 months if there exists “well-found reasons to believe the defendant may have committed a crime” including ‘violating public morality’, a vague and undefined expression that is often used against those most vulnerable.
It is therefore undeniable that LGBTQ+ community members are not safe in Qatar when it comes to simply being themselves. As a result of this, many questions were asked about whether it was appropriate for Qatar to host the World Cup in the first place, as it would go against the human rights standards FIFA claims to promote and advocate. Looking back at how events transpired during the World Cup, Gianni Infantino’s opening statement that “Everyone will be welcomed to the tournament regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality.”, was not upheld, and not only did this contribute to erasing the oppressive lived reality of LGBTQ+ Qatari residents, but on multiple occasions, FIFA and Qatari authorities acted to dampen support for the community and encourage abuse.
For example, as the World Cup opened, a Qatari official described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” and being gay as “haram,” Arabic for “forbidden.”, tainting the atmosphere of the tournament right from the offset. Sportswear giant Hummel hid its corporate logo and produced ‘colour of mourning’ uniform for Denmark’s national team, the French national newspaper, Le Quotidien, boycotted coverage of tournament and the Australian men’s football team did a video protesting the abuses in Qatar. Despite these efforts to highlight the other, darker side of the tournament, they have been overshadowed by claims that 2022 saw the ‘best world cup ever’ with the plethora of close games, unexpected results and of course, the excitement of the final. The lack of action on the part of FIFA and Qatari authorities means that Qatar continues to exhibit human rights violations and though the World Cup exposed this, in the 13 years since site selection, there has been insufficient progress in this field.