Illustration by May Moorwood.

Last week, I asseverated my utter disgust at the state of the modern game, regarding the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal and the legitimisation of regressive, autocratic regimes, and why we – both as fans and as decent human beings – should rage against it. I focused then on Russia’s successful World Cup bid, FIFA’s half-baked and unethical justifications for allowing the event to take place, and the bizarre corruption surrounding it and the whole of our footballing bureaucracy. With an eye to the unjust and excessive conduct of those at the top of the game, this week I’ll be polemicizing against the frankly sickening background of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup.

In 2022, the grandest stage in international sports, the World Cup final will be held in the Lusail Iconic Stadium in Qatar, a peninsular Gulf state mired in international controversy. What is supposed to be the exuberant celebration of one of our great cultural events will be marred by the knowledge that the supporters are standing in stadiums in part constructed through the systematic abuse of migrant labourers and, in some cases, forced and unpaid labour. The infamous focal point of the FIFA corruption investigation has since crippled the federation’s reputation, but the 2022 World Cup will nevertheless go ahead.

Since that fateful night in Zürich, when Qatar was chosen to host the World Cup, both FIFA and the tiny, gas-rich Arab regime have been mired in accusations of alleged corruption and, more seriously, the horrific and abusive treatment of migrant workers, who are building the stadiums in which the games will be played and the infrastructure to support millions of international fans. Since then, one word in particular has popped up in news editorials and opinion pieces like this worldwide: kafala. Kafala means sponsorship in Arabic, and it’s a system used in all Persian Gulf states, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to control and manage their huge migrant populations, most of whom are low-skilled workers.

Kafala in practice means that employers, not the Qatari regime, are solely responsible for their migrant workers’ visas and well-being. Richard Morin, writing in the New York Times, described it as a form of indentured servitude. The system is popular amongst the Gulf states as it keeps tight control over the large migrant population. However, it has undoubtedly resulted in widespread abuse across the Middle East. The extent of their exploitation ranges from total movement restriction, illegally deflated or stolen of wages and squalid, cramped accommodation, to arbitrary arrests, alleged torture, and deportation for demanding better conditions, to suicide and even early sudden death from working long hours in the unimaginable, often supra-40-degree heat.

Over 90% of Qatar’s population are migrant workers, mainly from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Since the night they were granted hosting rights, this has rapidly expanded “from 1.6 million people in December 2010 to 2.6 million in December 2018”, according to the International Observatory of Human Rights. They invariably work for miniscule, often stolen wages in the blistering heat, and live in huge, slum-like labour camps away from the large, architecturally stunning cities like Doha.

In most cases, however, the exploitation begins at home as a Kafkaesque chain of government bureaucracies and immoral individuals exploit some of their poorest and most desperate citizens.

In places like Nepal, one the world’s largest exporters of workers, remittances sent home from abroad make up as much as 20% of the countries of GDP. In villages far outside of large, densely populated cities, there are few opportunities for work outside of subsistence farming. Here, agents are sent, with visas already approved by companies and government departments back in the Gulf States, to find workers, often poor and illiterate, offering work opportunities to make relatively large sums of money in the Middle East.

However, the work visa comes at a price for prospective workers: large amounts of money that they do not have, so they will borrow money against their family’s land (the going rate for a Qatari visa being around £3,500 – a huge sum in Bangladesh where the annual income is only around £1,000.) To add to the uncertainty, bribes would usually have to be paid all along the line in Nepal – from getting a passport to sorting out the paperwork.

Sadly, as elucidated above, the real horrors only begin when they reach their destination. One of the many problems that victims of the Kafala system face is the extremely low pay that they receive, far lower than the contract they had originally signed. Some workers, when they are paid at all, are paid as little as £200 per month, making it virtually impossible to send any money home to their families. If they wish to return home, they will have to repay the loan they took on their family’s land; without the money, their family is homeless. So, the worker stays, unable to send much money home or find a better solution. Through this (and the Kafala policy of restricting job transfers and exit visas from migrants without permission from their employer) the worker is utterly trapped, both in the exploitative job and the abusive country. As such, millions of repressed workers toil arduously for a pittance in extreme heat. Even if they could afford living there, they are exiled from living in the cities and herded into migrant labour camps with often awful sanitary conditions and with 8 to 16 people living in one room.

No one is even sure how many workers have died or how they’ve died; few statistics on worker deaths in the Gulf states exist.  However, some accounts estimate that up to 1200 migrant workers have died in Qatar since 2010. The Guardian reported that in 2014 up to 188 Nepalese migrant workers died working on infrastructure to be used during the World Cup and the writers of the 2014 award-winning documentary Trapped in Qatar, which filmed the utter degradation of some 125 unpaid Nepali workers, estimate that by the time the first ball is kicked, over 4000 migrant workers will have died.

It is in this dismal context that the 2022 World Cup was being built. Initially, the plight of migrant workers had received minimal coverage, but stellar journalism and persistent reports from human rights organisations, like Amnesty International and Human Right Watch, brought the issue to the world’s attention. Following this outcry, Qatar instituted limited reforms, but FIFA came under scornful criticism for allowing the exploitation to have taken place at all. In a 2016 report from Amnesty International Secretary-General, Salil Shetty wrote that “the abuse of migrant workers is a stain on the conscience of world football. For players and fans, a World Cup stadium is a place of dreams. For some of the workers who spoke to us, it can feel like a living nightmare.” The bad publicity forced both FIFA and Qatar to start addressing the issue. A worker’s charter was instituted, as was a system of electronic wages to end late and underpayments. “Qatar has made substantial progress on labour reforms,” a government official declared, with all the credibility of Orwell’s Oceania and its Ministry of Plenty; the Gulf State was becoming a worker’s paradise, you see.

Changes had been promised before and not been implemented – at times it felt like true reform was being given lip service. “Despite the significant promises of reform which Qatar has made ahead of the 2022 World Cup, it remains a playground for unscrupulous employers,” said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s deputy director of global issues. “Migrant workers often go to Qatar in the hope of giving their families a better life – instead many people return home penniless after spending months chasing their wages, with too little help from the systems that are supposed to protect them.”

And then the cause of the workers’ rights in the Gulf got a boost from an unlikely source. A political and economic boycott (more on this next week) between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar has prompted a new wave of potentially sweeping worker reforms. Qatar announced that Kafala was to be effectively abolished, including the need to ask your employer for an exit visa. Contracts would have to be lodged with the central committee so that workers would receive the wages they were promised, and, most significantly, a temporary minimum wage would be created to end the practice of different wages for different countries, even for the same jobs. Despite the fact that Qatari labour policy would remain repressive to some extent, both the International Trade Union Confederation and the recent World Report by Human Rights Watch – two organisations that have been sharply critical of Qatar – hailed the move as a positive step.

However, a word of caution must be offered: promises have been made before, often laws have been passed, but there has been little implementation on the ground, making any legal changes largely irrelevant. Human Rights Watch wrote that “these measures would be pathbreaking for Gulf countries where migrants make up most of the labour force, but the announcement gives little detail on how laws will be amended, how the changes will be carried out, or the timeframe for their implementation.” As Nicholas McGeehan, the most visible champions for worker’s and human rights across the Gulf, tweeted after the announcement was made “Human Rights Watch take an optimistic view of the human rights situation in Qatar in their World Report, it’s okay to be optimistic and I hope they’re right. I’m sceptical and I hope I’m wrong.”

FIFA and their sponsors posit that they are monitoring the situation closely and with concern, yet their actions show little evidence to support this claim. In their official response to Amnesty International report, FIFA suggested that it wasn’t their job to become involved in the internal political affairs of the host countries. Clearly, overturning a government instituted ban on alcohol in stadiums in Brazil and setting up their own criminal courts in South Africa doesn’t count as political intervention. It would seem that the interference is only feasible when there’s a profit to be made.

It seems utterly unconscionable for FIFA to shamelessly tolerate the degradation of human life in exchange for profit and status, but I have little doubt that they will do and with a smile – as long as the games go smoothly, their pockets are lined and their investors happy. Qatar’s extremely long list of human rights violations is ever-growing. As has been widely circulated, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, domestic violence is completely decriminalised, and there is little state-protected freedom of speech. To allow this competition to proceed unchallenged is to tacitly support and legitimise the choices of their government. To reject Qatar as offensive, intolerable, and immoral hosts is not the imposition of supposed western morality. Homophobia is not a life choice, it’s discrimination. Spousal abuse is not a cultural norm, it’s a crime. The mass death of migrant slave workers is not a coincidence, it’s cold-blooded murder.

Chris ONeil

Chris O'Neil is a columnist for the Blue. He's going into his second year at Brasenose College, studying History and Politics. With special interests in sports and pertinent socio-political issues, he'll be writing his column throughout the late summer and into Michaelmas Term 2020.