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6 Jul 2023

Deepika Thapaliya, Survey Manager at Equidem

Inside Qatar 2022: A FIFA Human Rights Volunteer reflects on the legacy of the World Cup for migrant workers

Deepika Thapaliya, Equidem

In December 2022, Qatar's long-awaited moment arrived as it hosted the world's most magnificent sporting event – the FIFA World Cup. While fans eagerly gathered from across the globe to witness the event, the dark truth of exploitation and human rights abuses loomed amidst its grandeur.

At Equidem, we have been investigating the rights and situation of migrant workers in the Gulf, including Qatar. In the lead-up to the World Cup, we interviewed over 1,000 migrant workers from Asia and Africa employed at the FIFA stadium sites. Their stories unveiled a distressing pattern of exploitation, encompassing illegal recruitment fees, the withholding of wages, unsafe living and working conditions, and long working hours. Deceptive agencies charged excessive fees, trapping workers in forced labour. The Kafala system increased vulnerability by limiting job mobility and freedom to leave without employer consent. These were not just abstract issues that I was reading about from home. Rather, I witnessed some of these very same violations with my own eyes, having attended as a Human Rights Volunteer.

“You see how busy it is. I cannot take a break. There is no one else to take turns.” A security guard working at one of the World Cup Stadiums told me that he had to work up to 17 hours a day without proper meal breaks. Even when the stadiums were under construction, workers we talked to had similar complaints of being overworked without proper compensation. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy had separate Workers’ Welfare Standards specifically for workers employed at the FIFA World Cup sites. Despite the labour reforms and measures implemented by the Qatari government, FIFA, and its partners, Equidem’s report exposed major construction firms evading labour inspections and perpetrating human rights abuses against migrant workers.

Nationality-based discrimination remains a pervasive issue for migrant workers in Qatar, where hierarchies and wage disparities based on nationality persist in many workplaces. The World Cup brought to light further instances of discrimination and racial profiling, as security forces singled out individuals of colour for unnecessary scrutiny. African fans were subjected to unexplained heightened scrutiny during security check-ins, raising concerns about racial profiling. Moreover, the confiscation of items such as the pride flag encroached upon freedom of expression. These discriminatory practices not only violated the principles of equality and non-discrimination, but also undermined the inclusive spirit of the World Cup.

Although charging workers with recruitment fees is prohibited in Qatar, it is common knowledge an overwhelming majority of migrant workers must pay these illegal recruitment charges to secure jobs. In a conversation with a Pakistani national who was recruited to work at one of the World Cup stadiums just a month before the tournament began, he revealed he had to pay a staggering PKR300,000 (USD1,048.85) as a recruitment fee. This highlights the huge financial burden placed on workers, which perpetuates a toxic system of debt bondage and exploitation.

The establishment of a Human Rights Grievance Mechanism by FIFA before the World Cup was a positive step towards addressing human rights concerns. However, a recent report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) indicates only a small minority of workers were aware of this grievance mechanism, and no one had utilised it, raising questions about its effectiveness and accessibility. Fear of retaliation is a significant barrier for migrant workers to report abuses. Previous investigations conducted by Equidem revealed instances where workers who spoke out about violations at FIFA stadium sites faced severe repercussions from their employers, including termination, detention, and deportation. These findings highlight the need for robust safeguards and mechanisms to protect workers from retaliation including awareness of their rights and access to effective grievance channels.

The undeniable reality is that Qatar owes its World Cup dreams to the sweat and toil of hundreds of migrant workers. From the gleaming stadiums to the sprawling cities, it is their sacrifices which have propelled Qatar onto the global stage. As we reflect on the legacy of the World Cup in Qatar, we cannot ignore the suffering and injustice endured by migrant workers. The exploitation and human rights abuses that marred this global event demand immediate action and accountability. Qatar must uphold its promises and implement labour reforms effectively, ensuring the well-being and dignity of all workers. As for FIFA and its partners, they must do more than simply establish mechanisms and committees, but also actively promote their accessibility and effectiveness. FIFA has the resources to make this happen, and the team at Equidem will keep their eyes and ears on the ground until they do.

By Deepika Thapaliya, Survey Manager at Equidem