Controversy has surrounded FIFA’s choice of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup since the international soccer federation’s selection was announced in 2010. But a recent expose in the Guardian, which reported that last year an average of one Nepalese guest worker died every two days working on projects relating to the soccer tournament, should be the final straw. FIFA should pull the tournament from the authoritarian gulf state entirely, and find another venue.
According to the Guardian, at least 157 Nepalese migrants working on projects related to the World Cup died in Qatar over the course of 2014, mostly from workplace accidents, heart attacks, and sudden cardiac arrests caused by working for hours on end in the intense heat. According to the report, these numbers are corroborated by the Nepalese government. Qatar also attracts migrant laborers from other countries such as India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, so it is likely that the number of deaths is actually far higher.
The main cause for the labor conditions can be traced back to Qatar’s kafala system, which legally ties immigrant workers to their employers. Under the system, which is similar to those in other gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, immigrants can only enter the country as guest workers sponsored by a company, family, or individual for a set period of time, often two years. While in Qatar, workers have few rights — they cannot form trade unions, completely own their own businesses, or leave the country without an exit visa. Many construction workers are forced to live in labor camps in appalling conditions without access to air conditioning, bedding, or cooking equipment.
Qatar has promised some changes. The government committee overseeing some of the construction projects for the tournament has said it will conduct safety inspections and audits of their sites. After hiring international law firm DLA Piper to examine labor conditions in the construction sector, the Qatari government proposed reforms to the kafala system last May, such as loosening restrictions on the exit visa program and the provision that bans workers from changing jobs. Some of the worst abuses, such as seizing a worker’s passport for the duration of their contract, are already illegal under Qatari law, but enforcement is so shoddy that employers can usually flout the few regulations that do protect worker rights. And crucially, none of these reforms have seemed to lead to actual improvements in conditions for workers.
This isn’t the first time the 2022 World Cup has been in the news. There have been allegations that Mohammed bin Hammam, a Qatari citizen and former president of the Asian Football Confederation, bribed international soccer officials in order to secure the bid for Qatar. But through thick and thin, FIFA has refused to reconsider its choice for the 2022 World Cup. The organization has maintained that the responsibility for worker safety lies with the contractors building the sites, not FIFA, although it did say in a statement that “FIFA continues to work closely with Qatar . . . towards the ultimate goal of creating sustainable measures in relation to workers’ welfare standards.”
That isn’t good enough. The stadiums being constructed are for FIFA’s event, and the organization has at the very least a moral responsibility to ensure that the people building those stadiums are working in safe conditions. If FIFA chooses not to change venues, knowing full well what is happening in Qatar, it will make the organization complicit in worker deaths and send a damning message about what its priorities truly are.