Living in la la land: 2022 FIFA world cup in Qatar

In reading the news items listed under “2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar”, the average football fan will no doubt be excited at the prospect of the next “spectacular” and “absolutely incredible” event, which promises to be “a benchmark for future mega events”.

Yet looking past these headlines, an entirely different picture emerges, one which seems to have been completely ignored by FIFA (the governing body of world football). With severe restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, discrimination against women in both law and practice, acute exploitation and abuse of migrant workers and temperature surpassing 40 degrees Celsius in summer, is FIFA living in “la-la-land” in choosing Qatar to host one of the worlds grandest sporting events?

Qatar has been increasingly dependent on migrant labor, as less than 10% of the country’s population of 2.6M are Qatari nationals. This dependency has only increased, with hundreds of thousands of extra construction workers being imported as Qatar continues the mammoth task of building new stadiums and developing infrastructure in order to fulfill the obligations of its World Cup bid and ensure it is ready to hold such an event by 2022.

Although changes to Qatar’s “Kafala” system came into force in December 2016, reportedly ending it’s labor sponsorship system, the fundamentally exploitive nature of this system, often referred to as “modern day slavery”- was left intact. The old Kafala laws which forced foreign workers to seek their employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country were replaced with a new contract-based law, claimed to ensure greater flexibility and protection by the Qatari authorities. The new law provides a grievance committee for workers in cases in which sponsors refuse to grant exit VISAs, yet migrant worker’s legal residence in the country continues to be tied to their employer or sponsor. In practice, this enables employers to arbitrarily prevent their employees from leaving Qatar and returning to their home country. In addition, despite them making up 99% of the private sector workforce, Qatar’s labor law prohibits migrant workers from unionizing or engaging in strikes.

According to Human right watch world report 2017, low-paid migrant workers, mostly from Asia and to a lesser extent Africa, continue to face abuse and exploitation. Earlier this year, Amnesty International accused Qatar of using forced labour at a flagship World Cup 2022 stadium and the surrounding Aspire Zone sporting complex. Amnesty reported that workers at Khalifa International Stadium are forced to live in squalid accommodation, pay vast recruitment fees and have had wages withheld and passports confiscated. The Qatari government said the welfare of migrant workers was a “top priority” but took no real action to amend the grave situation. According to the amnesty international annual report 2016/2017, Some migrant workers employed on high-profile construction projects were relocated to the Labor City and Barwa Al Bahara complexes, built by the government to accommodate up to 150,000 low-income migrant workers with better conditions and facilities. A 2010 law, effectively prohibiting migrant workers from living in urban residential districts, continued to restrict the supply of available housing, thereby aggravating overcrowding elsewhere and condemning most migrant workers to inadequate living conditions. In April, census data published by the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics indicated that 1.4 million people were living in labour camps.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, responsible for overseeing all 2022 World Cup projects, announced “rectification” programs for contractors involved in abuses and placed restrictions on future bids for World Cup contracts from a main subcontractor. Some labor supply companies were banned from working on 2022 World Cup projects, including one found to be using forced labor. Last November, the Supreme Committee signed a year-long agreement with the international trade union “Building and Wood Workers’ International” to carry out joint inspections of the working and housing conditions of certain migrant construction workers and to publish details of these inspections. The agreement was limited to World Cup projects and did not cover associated infrastructure projects such as highways, rail networks or hotels.

When it comes to women’s’ rights, Qatari women face discrimination both in law and in practice and are inadequately protected against domestic violence. Personal status laws discriminate against women in relation to marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, nationality and freedom of movement; Qatar’s Law on family and personal status states that a marriage contract is valid when a woman’s male guardian approves the contract and two male witnesses are present. In addition, the wife’s responsibility to look after the household and to obey her husband is specifically expressed by the law. Other than a single Article in the family law, forbidding husbands from hurting their wives physically or morally, and the general provisions on assault, the Qatari penal code does not criminalize domestic violence or marital rape. Moreover, unlike when Qatari men marry non-Qatari spouses, when Qatari women do likewise, their nationality isn’t passed to their children. According to the global gender gap report of 2016, Qatar is ranked last (144/144) when it comes to political empowerment with 0 women in parliament, 5 women in ministerial positions (compared with 95 men) and 0 women having served as the head of state. Qatar’s overall grade is 119/144.

Freedoms of expression, association and assembly

According to the amnesty international annual report 2016/2017, the Qatari authorities continued to unduly restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The authorities did not permit the existence of independent political parties, and worker associations were only permitted for Qatari citizens if they met strict criteria. Unauthorized public gatherings were not permitted and were dispersed, laws criminalizing expression deemed offensive to the Emir were maintained. Moreover, the independent online news outlet “Doha News” which covered sensitive topics in Qatar, was blocked within Qatar by the two local Internet service providers.

Furthermore, while the professional athletes will surely be taken care of, visiting football fans, most of whom are unaccustomed to such high temperatures- might not cope that well, especially when adding alcohol to the mix. Also, there are great football nations who would very much like to host a world cup and already have sufficient infrastructure and stadiums built that will be further used long after the world cup is over (England, Brazil etc.),

Why should the eyes of the world be drawn towards Qatar? Well, with a climate nearly as oppressive as its government, it appears as though once again political and financial interests have trumped those of the genuine football fan and even the competitors themselves. Most importantly perhaps, the human rights of those charged with the very task of ensuring that this country, with no footballing pedigree to speak of, is prepared to host the most prestigious tournament of them all just five years from now.

The author is thankful to P. Higgins, football enthusiast and specialist, for his valuable insights.

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