European Parliament Testimony
“The High Human Cost of the World Cup”
By Minky Worden
November 14, 2022
For global sport, this year opened with the Winter Olympics in Beijing while the Chinese government was committing crimes against humanity. Then the most recent Football World Cup host, Russia, invaded Ukraine. The year will end with Qatar’s World Cup, where the spotlight will fall, as it should, on wage theft and “unexplained” deaths of thousands of migrant workers who built the infrastructure for football’s flagship event.
FIFA granted Qatar the tournament in 2010, with no human rights due diligence. FIFA set no conditions about protections for the migrant workers who would be needed to build the massive infrastructure for the tournament.
FIFA also failed to examine the human rights concerns for journalists, or discrimination that women, LGBT people, and others face in Qatar. In 2016, FIFA adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and in 2017 FIFA adopted a Human Rights Policy, but it is yet to fully put into practice when it comes to the upcoming World Cup.
Today’s discussion is focused on labor, but all human rights are interconnected, and Qatar’s lack of protections for migrant laborers, press freedom, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the country’s lack of remedy including unions, strikes and independent human rights institutions, created conditions where serious abuses occurred during 12 years of World Cup preparations.
I will address these abuses, acknowledge some steps that have been taken by Qatari authorities, highlight how, unfortunately, they remain insufficient to fully prevent further abuses and thoroughly provide remedy for those that have occurred, and encourage further steps that Qatari authorities and FIFA should take moving forward.
In Qatar, male guardianship rules deny women the right to make key decisions about their own lives. Female migrant workers face particular risks of abuses as service sector workers in the delivery of the World Cup. Migrant domestic workers can be confined to their employers’ homes and may be subject to physical and sexual abuse.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) People’s Rights
Qatar’s penal code Article 285 punishes consensual sexual relations between men with up to 7 years in prison. In October, Human Rights Watch published research that Qatar had arbitrarily arrested six Qatari LGBT people and subjected them to beatings, sexual harassment and detention. Just last week, Khalid Salman, a 2022 FIFA Qatar World Cup Ambassador, described homosexuality as “damage in the mind.”
Suggestions by officials that Qatar would make an exception to its abusive laws and practices for outsiders are implicit reminders that Qatari authorities do not believe that its LGBT citizens and residents, including migrant workers, deserve these basic rights.
Freedom of Expression and Press Freedom
Laws in Qatar restrict press freedom and were not reformed as expected in the run-up to the World Cup. Instead, new laws were passed that restricted free expression further.
Some international journalists have been detained while reporting ahead of the World Cup in Qatar, forced to confess, and their work has been destroyed. These unacceptable violations of promised press freedom were often tied to reporting on poor living or working conditions for migrant workers on the World Cup infrastructure.
Protections during the World Cup
This month, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Qatar’s organizing body for the World Cup, told Human Rights Watch it will provide shelters and clinics for victims of abuse during the World Cup, including migrant workers. FIFA has given similar assurances to protect press freedom, women’s rights and LGBT rights, and has set up a comprehensive grievance system to file reports.
But these temporary assurances and reporting after the fact are no substitute for permanent reforms to protect human rights in law and policy in Qatar.
The group most affected by the World Cup are migrant workers.
In 2010, FIFA knew or should have known that because the country lacked the infrastructure for the games, millions of migrant workers would be needed to build and service the infrastructure, at an estimated cost of $220 billion, and that they would suffer under the kafala system that ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers.
This World Cup infrastructure has included eight stadiums, an airport expansion, a new transit system, multiple hotels, and miles of new roads. Much of this infrastructure would not have been built under an extreme time pressure without the World Cup coming to Qatar.
Human Rights Watch research has shown that abusive legislation and policies, the time pressure, and attempts to contain the exorbitant costs, have resulted in abuses against migrant workers, including work in life-threatening conditions, low wages or illegal recruitment fees.
Because of the extreme heat in Qatar, FIFA ultimately moved the World Cup from summer to winter. But Qatari authorities have failed to meaningfully investigate, let alone pay for, thousands of unexplained deaths of young, seemingly healthy migrant workers who have died building tournament infrastructure.
As FIFA prepares to rake in billions in revenue from sponsors and broadcasters, many migrant worker families still mourn the death of their loved ones and struggle to feed their children or pay off loans their loved ones took out to pay illegal World Cup recruitment fees.
Labor Reforms in Qatar
Qatar has introduced several promising reforms over the years, especially after 2017 when it committed to a technical cooperation agreement with the ILO, because of the ILO Forced Labor complaint in 2014.
But these reforms have been limited in their impact due to their late introduction, narrow scope, or gaps in implementation.
HRW and migrant rights groups continue to document abuses including wage abuses, illegal recruitment fees as well as deaths that continue to be uninvestigated and thus uncompensated.
In 2020, Qatar introduced important reforms to the kafala system, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers, and is at the heart of all abuses against migrant workers. The reforms provided that most migrant workers could leave without an exit permit from their employers and change jobs without a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from their employers.
However, migrant workers are still required to obtain signed letters approving their resignation from their original employer – essentially creating a de-facto NOC – before they are allowed to switch jobs, which gives employers disproportionate control.
Furthermore, key elements of the kafala system remain unaddressed, including the criminalization of “absconding” which can lead to fines, detention, deportation, and a ban on re-entry. This means employers can falsely report workers as having “absconded,” invalidating the worker’s legal status—even if they are simply escaping an employer’s abuse.
Thus, despite the reforms you will hear about today, many workers are still in position of vulnerability that employers can, and often do, take advantage of.
Illegal recruitment fees
Human Rights Watch has documented how most migrant workers had to pay between US$700 and $2,600 to secure jobs in Qatar, and it can take months or even years for them to pay back.
They often paid those fees by borrowing at high interest rates, selling assets, and depleting family savings. By the time workers arrive in Qatar, they are already victims of wage theft, indebted and trapped in jobs that often pay less than promised. This is debt bondage.
Qatar’s Supreme Committee introduced the Universal Reimbursement Scheme in 2017 to reimburse recruitment fees. But while promising, it is not mandatory even among contractors that operate projects affiliated with the Supreme Committee. As of last year, it covers only 50,000 workers out of the millions who paid to build Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure.
Human Rights Watch has also documented widespread wage theft that has persisted, even this year. Employers and labor supply companies in Qatar frequently delay, withhold, or arbitrarily deduct workers’ wages.
In 2015, Qatar created the Wage Protection System (WPS)—which acts more like a notification system when employers fail to pay workers. In 2018, Qatar established the Labour Dispute Resolution Committees and in 2020, set up the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund to ensure that if companies fail to comply with a ruling in a worker’s favor, workers would still be paid.
The ILO reported that by September 30, 2022, the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund has compensated a total of US$320 million of unpaid wages and benefits.
While positive, the Insurance Fund became operational only in 2020, so most workers subject to wage theft did not benefit from it and returned home without their wages. Some workers who did benefit from the Fund reported that the compensation process has been uneven. Even now, wage abuse is rampant and migrant workers are forced to strike to protest despite the fear of reprisal.
Strikes and unions remain illegal for migrant workers.
Uncompensated deaths of workers
Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the causes of deaths of thousands of migrant workers, a large number of which are attributed to so-called “natural causes.”
More tragically, in these cases, under Qatari labor law, families do not receive any compensation. The controversy around the number of deaths has received the most attention, but a big concern for Human Rights Watch is the high share of unexplained and uncompensated deaths.
Human Rights Watch recently interviewed Ram Pukar Sahani whose father died in Qatar this year. His father died at a construction worksite in his work uniform. And there is a photo to verify this tragic case. Even then, his death was reported to be a “cardiac arrest” with no investigation into its actual causes, thus it was considered non-work related and his family hasn’t been compensated.
I am sorry migrant workers and the families of workers who died cannot be with us today, to tell you about the economic hardship that leads them to send beloved family members away for years—and the trauma when they don’t return home alive.
The Supreme Committee started encouraging its contractors to adopt life insurance for migrant workers which provides compensation regardless of the cause and place of injuries or deaths. But this program only began in 2019, applies only to their contractors, and because it is not mandatory, has only been adopted by 23 contractors.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and more than a dozen global unions, fans, human rights, and labor groups are asking FIFA and Qatar to remedy these abuses by providing financial compensation to workers and their families, and for a migrant workers center.
FIFA and Qatar committing to a remedy fund is NOT at odds with acknowledging important reforms made by Qatar, especially in the last three years. In fact, Qatari authorities can play a leading role in developing the compensation scheme if they decide to do so.
In our research, HRW found migrant workers who did benefit in recent years from existing compensation schemes. Moreover we found that even relatively small amounts of money made a huge difference in clearing the debt bondage that many workers labored under or families fell into.
Leaving a positive legacy in Qatar after the World Cup includes both continuing the momentum of labor reforms—and compensating those who worked to deliver the World Cup before the labor reforms Minister Al Marri and the ILO have presented [OR will present]. Any discussion of “legacy” is moot without retrospective compensation.
Let me conclude by telling you the story of Nepali migrant worker Ram Kishun Sahani, who died this year working in Qatar to support his children. His parents are now struggling with grief and trauma from his death and don’t know how to make ends meet without their main breadwinner.
Bulani Sahani, Ram Kishun Sahani’s father said:
“After my son died, things have been very difficult. My son went [to Qatar] after borrowing money from so many villagers.
Now everyone keeps asking for it.
They say that I must have received compensation for my son’s death, but I haven’t received a single penny.
How will I repay them?
I don’t even have land to sell to pay them.
How will I take care of two kids, my grandchildren? My wife and I. How will I raise them?
This is what is difficult for me. Sometimes, I feel pain...feel like dying.
But if I die, what will happen to the children?”
The only “legacy” of the upcoming World Cup for the Sahani family is the outstanding loans Ram took out—about a thousand Euros—to pay for the job that he died doing.
These are cascading abuses that will not end when the World Cup is over.
The children of thousands of migrant workers who died could end up in child labor, child marriage or forms of child slavery simply because their families didn’t have funds to pay off debts, feed them or send them to school.
FIFA and Qatar can and should set up a “Remedy Fund” that could support these families and their children. Any discussion of a positive legacy for the Qatar World Cup is moot if historic harms are not addressed.
The lesson from Qatar’s World Cup should be that no host nation has a perfect human rights record, but that without human rights due diligence and a framework in place to protect the most vulnerable, the World Cup can be stained by serious abuses and even deaths.
The World Cup should never again take place without firm protections for everyone’s human rights: workers, women, LGBT people and journalists.