By: Francis Mulligan
The announcement that Qatar would host the 2022 FIFA World Cup was met with widespread criticism. How does a country with no historical success in international soccer and a population of fewer than two million people become the host of the world’s most notable sporting event? Claims of corruption within FIFA were widespread at the time and were later substantiated with arrests. FIFA officials were arrested under charges of racketeering, money laundering, and wire fraud a few years after the announcement. Following these arrests, leaked documents showed that Qatar had offered FIFA $400 million weeks before the bidding process had ended in order to host the tournament.
Additionally, there were, and still are, numerous practical issues that plague the upcoming tournament. Notably, the average temperature in Qatar makes playing the tournament in the summer nearly impossible. As a result, the tournament, which has always taken place in the summer, has been moved to the winter. This has raised problems for players and their domestic club teams, who compete throughout the winter months. Numerous domestic leagues have come forward and said that they do not want the tournament to take place in the winter. A spokesman for the English Premier League stated, “The prevailing view from the leagues has been that displacing the 2022 World Cup significantly from the original summer dates disproportionately impacts the sporting integrity of our competitions.” Also, there are questions as to whether the infrastructure of Qatar can withstand the increased traffic the tournament would bring. The country’s infrastructure is designed for that of a small nation, as Qatar’s population at the time was under two million; the last World Cup saw over seven million tourists visit Russia. An influx of almost four times Qatar’s population visiting the nation could provide a great strain on hotels, roads, airports, etc. Most importantly, Qatar did not, at the time of the announcement, have any stadiums in which the games could be played. Despite this, the Qatari government assured FIFA that the stadiums would be built and completed by the start of the tournament.
The need for new stadiums led to a large influx of migrant workers entering the country. Since the announcement of the World Cup, Qatar’s population has grown from 1.6 million to 2.6 million. Most of that growth is the result of the influx of migratory workers. Many of the workers hail from countries in the south of Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and India.
All of this has shined a light onto Qatar’s labor system. Qatar, along with other nations in the Middle East (Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), employs the Kafala labor system. Kafala, meaning sponsorship in Arabic, ties employees to specific employers. The employers sponsor employees’ visas and issue residency permits. The Kafala system is part of immigration law in these countries and is monitored and regulated by each nation’s Ministry of the Interior. Issues arise due to the control the employers then have over the employees. Stories of employers taking their employee’s passports away for years, refusing to allow employees to change jobs, and wages being withheld for months at a time are numerous. Furthermore, the working conditions on construction sites have been dangerous. Employees have claimed that they were being forced to work without water in the desert. Lastly, employees have claimed that they were not allowed to leave the country without employer permission. Any claims of abuse were disregarded by authorities who would meet with the employers of the workers. The employers would claim that nothing wrong had taken place. Then, workers would often be deported or punished for going forward with claims of abuse. A lack of a legitimate system of redress for employees, along with the Kafala system has left migrant employees powerless in dealing with their employers.
Once the World Cup was been granted to Qatar in 2010, human rights groups across the globe began to scrutinize the Kafala system. Those criticisms fell upon deaf ears until 2013. In 2013, the International Trade Union Confederation warned that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar risked over 4,000 lives. Mortality figures acquired by the organization showed that migrant workers from Nepal and India alone were dying at a rate of over one person per day. This was at a time in which the government of Qatar was making public claims that over 500,000 more workers were needed to finish the World Cup’s construction on time. In 2014, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations stated, “The recruitment process for migrants needs to be further formalized in order to prevent exploitation . . . The kafala system is a source of abuse and exploitation of migrants, and should be abolished.”
Once the pressure of international criticism began to mount, Qatar attempted to make changes to the Kafala system, but they were not enough. Following a report by Amnesty International in 2016, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Qatar entered into a three-year program to carry out extensive labor reformation. The ILO is a UN employment rights agency whose mission is to advance social justice and set international working standards. The focus of this three-year program is to adjust wage payments, to reform the Kafala system, and to provide workers with more power in labor negotiations. This plan operated in a manner through which the ILO would make recommendations to Qatar in order to reach certain goals, but all of the decision-making would still be in the Qatari government’s hands.
Despite this three-year plan, migrant workers in Qatar still saw their wages withheld by employers. In 2018, multiple construction companies withheld wages from employees for several months before ceasing operations altogether, leaving thousands without any pay for months of work. Additionally, as part of the reformation process, the ILO set up a complaint system for employees to seek redress against unfair labor practices. The ILO received over 6,000 complaints in a year from workers regarding the harsh working conditions or employer mistreatment. The complaint system was supposed to be quick and efficient, where Qatari officials would issue a ruling on a complaint within six weeks. However, complaints took anywhere from three to eight months to be resolved instead. Due to this elongated and ineffective complaint system, employees who were not paid their wages would forego civil action against employers and instead often elected to leave the country after working for months with nothing to show for it. Many human rights organizations continued to call for the end of the Kafala system due to these continued issues. In August of 2019, over 5,000 workers took to the streets protesting the delay of wages and poor working conditions.
Two months later, on October 17, 2019, Qatar pledged to abolish the “Kafala” system altogether and add a minimum wage to the country’s labor laws. A Qatari official stated, “Qatar has made substantial progress on labour reforms and it continues to work with NGOs, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), to ensure that these reforms are far-reaching and effective.”
The announcement has been met with acceptance but also hesitance. A spokesman for Amnesty International said that “it would be a major step forward if these measures finally allow workers to return home or change jobs without restriction. We will be closely scrutinizing the details of this announcement and pushing for any positive measures to be quickly and fully implemented.” Due to the recent failed efforts of the Qatari government in reforming its labor system, human rights organizations understandably want to see the abolishment of the Kafala system play out before claiming this as a victory. However, this effort by Qatar is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
In conclusion, a surprising positive emerged from the 2022 FIFA World Cup being given to Qatar. The granting of the World Cup to Qatar was, according to leaked documents, due to FIFA accepting a bribe from the Qatari government. Many issues regarding the tournament’s practicality remain, but the social activism and backlash over Qatar’s labor practices have led to the country abolishing a system that perpetuated inhumane labor practices. Now, Qatar has pledged to be one of the first countries in the Middle East to abolish the Kafala system and establish a working minimum wage. While these reforms are not yet in place, if the country follows through with their promises, then Qatar may be an example for other nations in the region to follow.
 Amnesty International, Reality Check: Migrant Workers Rights With Four Years To The Qatar 2022 World Cup, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/02/reality-check-migrant-workers-rights-with-four-years-to-qatar-2022-world-cup/.
 Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz, U.S. Charges 16 FIFA Officials in Widening Probe (2015), https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/03/sport/fifa-corruption-charges-justice-department/index.html/.
 Qatar’s secret $880m World Cup payments to FIFA (2019), thetimes.co.uk/article/revealed-qatars-secret-880m-world-cup-payments-to-fifa-p3r5rvw9x/.
 Steven Mufson, Facing Unbearable Heat, Qatar Has Begun to Air-Condition the Outdoors, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/world/climate-environment/climate-change-qatar-air-conditioning-outdoors/.
 Tony Manfred, FIFA moving the 2022 World Cup to winter is a total mess — and the world’s biggest teams are outraged (2015), https://www.businessinsider.com/fifa-will-not-compensate-clubs-for-2022-world-cup-move-2015-2/.
 FIFA, 7.7 million football fans visit FIFA Fan Fest during Russia 2018, https://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/7-7-million-football-fans-visit-fifa-fan-fest-during-russia-2018/.
 Mufson, supra note 3.
 Amnesty International, supra note 1.
 International Labor Organization, Reform of the kafala (Sponsorship) System, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf/.
 Priyanka Motaparthy, Understanding Kafala: An archaic law at cross purposes with modern development (2015), https://www.migrant-rights.org/2015/03/understanding-kafala-an-archaic-law-at-cross-purposes-with-modern-development/.
 Amnesty International, Qatar World Cup of Shame (2016), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/03/qatar-world-cup-of-shame/.
 International Trade Union Conference, Qatar 2022 World Cup Risks 4000 Lives (2013), https://www.ituc-csi.org/qatar-2022-world-cup-risks-4000/.
 François Crepéau, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Mission to Qatar, ¶ 25-32, 80, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/26/35 (April 23, 2014).
 International Labor Organization, Qatar, https://www.ilo.org/beirut/countries/qatar/WCMS_654238/lang–en/index.htm.
 Amnesty International, Qatar: Despite Reform Promises, Migrant Workers Still Return Home Without Wages or Justice (2019), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/09/qatar-despite-reform-promises-migrant-workers-still-return-home-without-wages-or-justice/.
 Faras Ghani, Qatar Moves to Announce Abolishment of Kafala System (2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/qatar-moves-announce-abolishment-kafala-system-191017070750729.html.
 Amnesty International, Qatar: Pledge to End Abusive ‘Kafala’ System Must Truly Transform Workers’ Rights (2019), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/qatar-pledge-to-end-abusive-kafala-system-must-truly-transform-workers-rights/.