SAN FRANCISCO – For more than a decade, controversy surrounding Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has seen human rights organizations raising red flags from the mistreatment of workers to the country’s treatment of women and the LGBTQ community.
An international organization called Human Rights Watch describes the lives of migrant workers in Qatar. They were hired as cheap labor before the World Cup.
“Millions of migrant workers built the infrastructure needed to host this World Cup,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately, in building this World Cup, they have faced a widespread body of serious abuse.”
Human Rights Watch has kept a record of reported abuses against workers in the host country since 2010, when FIFA awarded hosting rights to Qatar.
“We’re talking about thousands of unexplained deaths, widespread wage theft and the payment of illegal recruitment fees,” Page said.
These workers all entered the so-called kafala system — which offers migrants visas and opportunities to make quick money and send money home.
But there was no real enforcement of H&S; This system also required an employer’s signature for an employee to quit a job they no longer wanted to work. It is so widespread in the Middle East that many human rights activists liken it to “modern day slavery.”
“There’s kind of a pile of these digital records over the years, but FIFA is one of those institutions that, if they want to, they really try not to listen,” Page said. “Especially when it comes to human rights issues.”
FIFA, the international governing body for football and the World Cup, says it has listened.
In a statement to KTVU, the association says in part: “FIFA is conducting an unprecedented due diligence process in relation to the protection of workers involved in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022… FIFA has been actively engaged in the implementation of broader labor reforms applicable to all businesses and projects applies across the country and benefits all workers in Qatar.”
University of San Francisco sports management professor Michael Goldman says FIFA has made some changes. The pressure led Qatar to abolish the kafala system and pass a series of laws to reform the situation of migrant workers.
“Could it be said that there is a positive benefit in awarding such a tournament to a country that wanted to use the tournament to facilitate some of these changes? Yes. Did we want to see these changes sooner? Secure.”
With these changes not happening sooner, some are questioning whether the World Cup should ethically move forward in a country that has a history of turning a blind eye to abuse.
Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, says the controversy sometimes outweighs the event itself.
“The World Cup and the Olympics are meant to celebrate humanity,” he said. “[They’re] is meant to celebrate what we have in common and yet when they award the countries with these bad records it almost spoils the event altogether.
So why did FIFA choose Qatar as the host country? Qatar won the bidding process for this opportunity in 2010. Part of pitching to the world was the idea of broadening horizons and bringing the tournament to the Middle East for the first time in its history. Some people question that.
“If Qatar had a huge population and was a hotbed for the development of football, it would make a lot more sense to host the World Cup there.”
But many point to FIFA’s history of corruption allegations. In particular, dozens of FIFA officials who have been suspended and even charged for allegedly taking bribes worth millions. The embattled FIFA President of 2010, Sepp Blatter, recently called the bid a “mistake”.
“I don’t think the idea of a World Cup is to find countries with a terrible civil rights track record and try to work for change there,” Heider said.
“The way it was awarded and the choice to award it is very suspicious to me.”
Ahead of the tournament, many football governing bodies, including US Soccer, known as USSF, are drawing attention to this; not only for the migrant workers, but also for the county’s perspective on women, people of color and the LGBT community.
“[There is] Incarceration, abuse in prison, placement in forced conversion centers,” said Human Rights Watch’s Page.
The US went so far as to change the color of their coat of arms to include rainbow colors instead of the standard red, white, and blue.
“Does it really affect the Qatari pressure group? I’m not sure,” Goldman said.
“Does it get some media exposure and good PR for the US national team? Yes. Does it keep us going and almost justify the US team’s presence? Yes.”
Experts say that with new leadership and pressure from stakeholders, FIFA is now trying to shed its reputation for corruption. It may even aim to avoid selecting controversial countries for World Cup venues in the future.
Although human rights activists say much more needs to be done to make Qatar’s past 12 years right, some experts say FIFA has inadvertently become a catalyst for social change in the Middle Eastern country.
“Just like apartheid in South Africa and many other welfare systems, the informal nature of these systems takes longer to work through,” said Goldman, who worked with FIFA during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“We could look back on this decades from now and say it was an important turning point.”
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 kicks off on November 20 when host country Qatar take on Ecuador.