Chosen as one of the 16 cities across North America that will host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, Boston is expected to welcome more than 450,000 visitors in town for the men’s World Cup at Gillette Stadium. But it’s also inheriting the dark legacy of Qatar, where thousands of migrant workers died while building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
FIFA may breathe a sigh of relief that the next iteration of the soccer tournament — set to be the largest single-sport event in history — is on this side of the world. But North America is far from immune to labor rights violations. And neither is Boston. For example, the owner of a pizzeria chain was charged earlier this year with one count of forced labor after allegedly physically abusing a worker and withholding workers’ pay. The owner allegedly threatened the worker, who was undocumented, with deportation. Also, the Department of Labor ordered a landscaping company in Massachusetts to pay $832,000 in stolen wages to 42 migrant workers. Unfortunately, the majority of workers lack access to justice or any sort of remedy for such injustices. In fact, most workers on temporary visas are denied access to legal services in the United States. Simply put, temporary visas can provide an avenue for employers to force migrant workers into deplorable conditions.
As organizers start to make millions of dollars in temporary renovations to Gillette Stadium, which will host at least six World Cup games, they must ensure that workers’ rights are protected, including the rights of migrants who will be performing jobs related to the World Cup.
There are more than 1.7 million workers on temporary visas in the United States. Lured by false promises and a desire to support their families, workers often pay thousands of dollars in recruitment fees to third-party hiring agents who operate with impunity. Many work in low-wage, high-risk industries. Since visas tie migrant workers to a single employer, speaking out could cost them their job and immigration status. Retaliation could plunge them into insurmountable debt upon returning to their home countries.
This should strike a chord for those familiar with migrant workers’ deaths in Qatar — those workers were also on temporary visas. FIFA, which generated a staggering $7.5 billion of revenue from the Qatar World Cup, has failed to compensate the families of the workers who died while building the stadiums, roads, and hotels to prepare for the event.
Amid criticism and scrutiny, FIFA made commitments to prioritize human rights at the 2026 World Cup. It required host cities to include human rights assessments during the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup. Boston’s initial submission did not include consultations with civil society groups or unions. It limited to law enforcement and government agencies, with virtually no consideration for temporary workers. Although it briefly mentioned the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement, which provides support for addressing legal issues and English language learning, this falls short of effectively meeting the comprehensive needs of migrant workers.
This fall, host cities will craft human rights action plans. Boston’s plan must include labor protections that account for the unique challenges faced by migrant workers, such as improvements to recruitment practices and access to justice. That requires advocates, unions, and organizers to not only join the host city committee — but to have a decision-making role in the group.
To be sure, construction for the upcoming 2026 World Cup is not as extensive as work completed in Qatar. Still, the city has a responsibility to protect the workers from exploitation.
Boston has a long-standing and undisputed title as a sports town. The 2026 World Cup provides an opportunity for Boston to earn a new title as a city renowned for championing the rights of all the workers who make sports come alive. The impact of improving worker protections would go far beyond the tournament. Boston would raise labor standards for the many sporting events the city is destined to host in the future — a title that solidifies its commitment to workers’ rights.
Evy Peña is a master of public administration candidate at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.