“When you work in Qatar you belong to someone. You are not free. You are a slave.” - French-born Moroccan soccer player Abdeslam Ouaddou
During Mr. Ouaddou’s time in Qatar, his life was at the whim of its labor system. He is only one of millions to have faced an extremely difficult time during his employment in the soccer industry. Before arriving in Qatar, he played for renowned soccer clubs in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in many countries including England, France, and Spain. He also represented Morocco internationally in over 50 matches. When Qatari club Lekhwiya (owned by Qatar’s then-Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani) approached him, he was in a rather tight position and did not have many other offers, so he accepted Lekhwiya’s offer and moved to Qatar. He was successful with the club. However, shortly thereafter, he was told to change to another club (on the order of the Crown Prince), Qatar Sports Club, even though he did not want to.
After moving to Qatar Sports Club, Mr. Ouaddou did not experience the same success. When he returned from a summer vacation in France, his salary was frozen. After five months of humiliation and no salary, he took his complaint to FIFA. He then asked for an exit visa from his first club, which he was denied. He was told that it would only be given to him if he rescinded his complaint with FIFA. In response, he threatened to take action in a human rights group and was eventually given his visa to leave the country.
The emotion surrounding Qatar and its labor system has risen greatly, especially in light of the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar’s problem is three-fold: it is caught up in a bidding controversy that is over three years old, due to allegations against FIFA of unethical bidding procedures. There are arguments, such as summertime heat and lack of soccer culture, that work against Qatar as a competent and proper host. Most importantly, its labor system will further antagonize it in the eyes of the international community. Here, Qatar’s successful bid, given the nature of its labor system, alludes to major oversight on the part of FIFA in its selection process.
Considering the many violations of human and labor rights that Qatar has made, it is necessary to cogitate rescinding Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Dangling the threat of rescission may lead to two actions: motivating Qatar to change its labor practices, or forcing FIFA to take the bid away from Qatar.
Entangled In Corruption
FIFA’s awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids to Russia and Qatar, respectively, was wrapped in controversy because of opaque bidding procedures. Allegedly, FIFA executives were bribed during the selection process for the next two World Cups.
Outside officials were given authority to conduct a thorough ethics investigation on the awarding of the bids. Outside officials are those who have had no ties to any financial dealings with soccer in the past four years. Their purpose is to restore FIFA’s credibility through individuals outside of the “football family.” Former US District Attorney Michael J. Garcia was appointed the head of the investigative division of FIFA’s ethics committee. FIFA also selected German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert to preside over the judging chamber of its ethics court.
Garcia is currently interviewing all of the FIFA officials who were involved in the voting and bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. However, only 11 of the 24 members of the executive committee who voted in the bidding process are still active today. The others have retired or, interestingly, have been banned from FIFA or resigned while under investigation. The fact that some of these members have resigned alludes to the possibility that the number of bribed or corrupt officials is higher than Garcia, the FBI, or other investigators will be able to prove.
In response to accusations that Qatar bought the winning bid, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said, “I will never say they (Qatar) bought it.” He did, however, say that political pressure by France and Germany did play a role in the final decision. “We know full well that big French and German companies work in Qatar, but they don’t just work for the World Cup. The World Cup is only a small part of what is going on in Qatar,” said Blatter. Blatter’s claim further decreases the trust and integrity with which FIFA operates, as some officials, as mentioned earlier, have been discharged due to corrupt bidding procedures.
Qatar’s bidding committee steadfastly denied any involvement in corrupt dealings as well. It said, “The 2022 bid committee strictly adhered to FIFA’s bidding regulations in compliance with their code of ethics.” However, even three years after it was given the bid, Qatar is still criticized for shady dealings.
An Excess of Heat, A Lack of Culture
There is also concern over other, non-legislative issues that deride Qatar’s credibility as a reasonable host for 2022. Concerns about the high temperatures characteristic of Qatar are widespread, and Blatter has said partly for this reason that awarding Qatar the bid was “a mistake.” The World Cup will most likely be held in the winter months because of the extremely hot summer temperatures.
FIFA will vote on whether or not it will move the tournament to the winter to avoid the summertime heat in 2015. Qatar initially stated that it would add space age cooling systems to deal with the problem, but quickly retracted its statement. This will have resonating impacts on major TV broadcasters and other sports leagues. In 2011, Fox Sports bought broadcasting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups for US$425 million. However because of the temperatures, the 2022 World Cup may be moved to January, thus clashing with National Football League games as well as the Super Bowl (which Fox Sports also broadcasts). This not only creates an incompatible schedule, but also may put a dent in revenues for both the NFL and FIFA, as some spectators (who would have attended both events) will prefer to watch or attend one event over the other. Some viewers may prefer to watch soccer over football on TV. This may also hurt advertisers, as Super Bowl commercials typically cost millions of dollars, because there is the expectation that tens of millions of Americans will be watching them.
Cultural issues have also become part of the conversation around the impropriety of Qatar as a host. An important quality that a host nation has historically possessed is a strong soccer culture. No Middle Eastern country boasts a competitive national soccer team. Qatar’s population is comprised of mostly migrant laborers, with a very small percentage of the population actually being Qatari nationals. This is why many club players, like Mr. Ouaddou, are from outside the country.
The strength of a national team can be indicative of the competitiveness and passion with which soccer thrives in that team’s country. And though soccer is the most popular sport amongst Qataris, the national team does not have an illustrious soccer history, as most of the teams of the other bidding nations do. The other major nations that bid for the 2022 World Cup (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the United States) were all represented in the most recent World Cup in South Africa. Qatar was not.
The Kafala System
The labor system is arguably the most contentious issue in Qatar, and there is no sign of change in its practice. The labor system is known as the kafala system. The kafala, or sponsorship, system is also present in other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE, but none of these other nations are as strict in their implementation of the kafala as Qatar.
Qatar has the highest proportion of migrant to native population out of all of the countries that use the kafala system. It also had the highest number of migrants from 2006-2011, with over 400,000 arriving from all over Asia. Because of its small native population, Qatar depends greatly on migrant workers in a way similar that in which the Spanish and Portuguese relied on Native American and African populations during the colonial era. The shortage of labor is a strong motivator for Qatar to keep workers, keep them as long as possible, and, because there are so many of them, give them the bare minimum to survive on.
A foreign worker can only come into the Arab Gulf states through a kafeel, or sponsor. The entire system in fact contradicts Qatari labor laws, and though it is supposed to provide a balance between the employers and the employed, it places a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the employers and nationals of Qatar. This connection between the employers and employed is the core essence of the kafala system, but it is now being criticized as slave-like and oppressive.
When a foreign worker arrives in Qatar, his or her passport and travel documents are confiscated, so that they cannot leave the country unexpectedly. This has led to forced labor situations, where workers cannot leave the country for an annual trip back to their home countries. If they resist, then they can face the risk of deportation and thus a loss of employment opportunities. Workers also do not have the right to change sponsors, as it is not mandated by law and requires the approval of the sponsor.
The law states that the kafeel has to pay for the worker’s medical bills, housing, and travel expenses. However, the situation is far from what is dictated by kafala law, and the employees today are paying for their own travel, food, and medical care. Workers are forced to do laborious, heavy-duty physical work for long hours (without overtime pay) in intense daytime desert heat. Even when they do receive pay, it is meager and generally does not meet the expectations that they were promised when they initially arrived in the country.
If a worker wants to leave, he or she needs an exit visa. When a worker is granted a release letter or No Objection Certificate (NOC), they are required to leave the country for a minimum of two years before returning to work for another employer. This can put significant financial stress on the worker; even though kafala law requires the sponsor to take full legal and economic responsibility of the worker when the worker arrives in the country, the sponsor in most cases does not. The worker, after receiving permission to leave, may still have to pay a relatively large sum of money to go back home. Once they are back home, they often have no work and may be in a worse situation than they were upon leaving the country.
The kafala system is not just a Qatari issue, but Qatar is the country where the issue is most pervasive. The buildings and infrastructure of cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha are indeed stirring and remarkable, but they have come at the expense of the suffering and deaths of countless migrant workers. Qatar is, in a sense, like a gilded apple. It is beautiful at face value, with luxurious shopping malls and hotels, posh beaches and condominiums, and, in a few years perhaps massive, aesthetic soccer stadiums. However, it also has an underlying darkness that is actively hidden from the public and international eye. That truth is coming out slowly, especially in light of the 2022 World Cup.
2022 World Cup Prospects
The Qatari government has historically taken little responsibility for workers’ rights, but given its interest in hosting an international sporting event, it needs to raise its domestic labor standards to international ones. In this context, the labor standards that would be acceptable are ones set by, for example, the International Trade Union Confederation, which has been trying to garner political will to reform and/or abolish the kafala system. Despite alleged reforms by Qatar, such as “Workers Charters,” which are aimed at improving wages, the number of workrelated deaths in Qatar is still increasing.
An estimated 1,200 migrant workers from India and Nepal have died since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup. An estimated 4,000 workers will die in Qatar due to World Cup-related incidents in the next eight years before the event. Qatar has stated that it will make an effort to reduce the impacts of the kafala system, but to what extent it will actually implement this is still unknown.
The promise of a tournament like one the world has never seen will probably be fulfilled in Qatar if they are allowed to keep the privilege of hosting the 2022 World Cup. Unfortunately, the number of deaths and exploitative practices in preparation for the event will also be unprecedented. The resistance to reform and change a rather arcane, barbaric labor system that defies twentyfirst century standards of ethics and labor may be penned down as abhorrent and barbaric in and of itself.
Qatar needs to be given an ultimatum. It has been criticized and opposed by international human rights groups, labor groups, and governments. Yet, the organization that clearly has the most influence over the semantics and operations of the World Cup is FIFA. The shady dealings of FIFA in the bidding process and other executive controversies have taken away its authority to give this ultimatum in the eyes of the international community.