By: Andrew Ringer

Introduction:

In just a few months, the highly awaited 2018 World Cup will kick off in Russia. 32 of the world’s greatest soccer nations will compete to be named world champions. Heroes will be made, losers will be devastated, and the world will be watching. During to 2014 World Cup, Fifa estimated that 3.2 billion people watched at least part of the tournament, with over a billion people tuning into the Argentina vs. Germany final. Therefore, the World Cup undoubtedly qualifies, and perhaps evens exemplifies, what it means to be a Mega-event, as is discussed by James Compton. The World Cup means a lot to a lot of people, just look at the reactions to Egypt qualifying for this year’s event.

All this excitement around the 2018 World Cup, however, has allowed for the working conditions for labourers of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to fly largely under the radar. For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus my research on the labour conditions in preparing for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, how they have reached these conditions, and what it all means. The research question that is ultimately being posed is, “what factors have contributed to the poor working conditions for foreign workers in Qatar, and what can be done to help the situation as well as future Mega-events?” I will be arguing that without immediate intervention, Qatar may be remembered as a human rights issue more than it is a World Cup. 

Qatar, by the numbers:

In December of 2010, Qatar won the bid for the 2022 World Cup, beating out Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States in the process. Picking Qatar as the host nation was seen as “a bold gamble” by FIFA, as the country had a population of less than two million inhabitants when selected, and there are major concerns over it being too hot to play soccer in. Furthermore, Qatar will be the first Middle Eastern country to ever host the World Cup. While 12 years may seem like an excessive amount of time to plan an event, when the event is as big as the World Cup, it’s certainly a fitting time frame.

Hassan Al-Thawadi
Bid chief executive Hassan Al-Thawadi stated “Heat is not and will not be an issue,” when it was continually brought up during the bidding process. (Photo from CNN International)

As originally planned, the Qatar World Cup was going to be played in 12 stadiums, nine of which would need to be constructed and three of which would need to undergo major renovations. Although the number of stadiums has reportedly been cut down from 12 to eight due to rising costs, this is still an exorbitant amount of building to be done. Which begs the questions: why does a country of less than two million people need 8 stadiums, all of which are expected to be able to hold more than 40,000 people? Other than the World Cup, is there really a scenario where we can imagine these stadiums all being used? Concerns over waste and the effects on the environment have at least been mostly mitigated, however, as the stadiums are planned to be Zero Waste through the use of environmentally friendly materials (Hayajneh, Elbarrawy, Elshazly, and Rashid, p. 476, 2017).

Lusail Stadium Qatar
The Lusail Stadium is where the 2022 World Cup opening match and final will be played, and is expected to be ready by 2021. (Photo from Stadium Guide)

Despite this, there are still major concerns to be raised about the building of these stadiums, as it pertains to the labour behind their construction, the scale of which is staggering. As written by scholar Sarath Ganji, anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million foreign workers will be used in preparation for the World Cup (p. 221, 2016). This means that there have potentially been nearly as many foreign workers as Qatar inhabitants in Qatar since 2010. By 2022, it is estimated that nearly $200 billion will be spent on real estate and development projects within Qatar surrounding the World Cup (Ganji, p. 221, 2016). A few years ago, that would have been roughly $100,000 being spent per Qatar inhabitant. The scale of the 2022 World Cup – especially when considering the population of Qatar – is incredible. It is no wonder why so many foreign workers are needed for the project.

Working conditions for foreign workers:  

The issue is how this large population of foreign workers is treated. In Ganji’s research, he found that there were 1,200 deaths by foreign construction workers within the first three years of building alone (p. 221, 2016). Furthermore, a study by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates there to be 4,000 deaths within this sector by the time the tournament kicks off. While the exact number of deaths to date is not available information, there is a simple question we should be asking, “why are people dying?”

The answer is that much of the work being done on stadiums is very dangerous – potentially fatal even – and the living conditions in which foreign workers stay are slum-like. Fatal working accidents are eight times more likely in Qatar than other rich countries, and this is without Qatar even collecting data for deaths of migrant workers, which is instead done by the ITUC. According to ITUC investigators, “Grown men said they were treated like animals, living like horses in a stable,” (Black, para. 6, 2014). As discussed in an article by BBC in 2015, workers don’t get days off, are not given access to water, and work in 40-50C heat daily. When Qatar bid chief executive Hassan Al-Thawadi said “Heat is not and will not be an issue,” he clearly did not take the workers into account. To top it all off, migrant workers are not even paid what they were promised – sometimes aren’t even paid at all – and struggle to pay the price of living in Qatar with the low wages, let alone send money back home.  

foreign workers Qatar
Migrant workers described their experience as “pathetic” and “oppressive” to BBC. (Photo from MercoPress)

Furthermore, as discussed by scholar Priya Dixit, foreign labour in Qatar operates under the Kafala system, which essentially means that the worker cannot change jobs or leave without permission (para. 4, 2015). It can be inferred that when you are trying to put on a Mega-event like the World Cup, the motivation to allow workers to leave is not very high for employers. Labour contractors and sponsors often hold the workers passports and ticket to return home, which is about as captive as the workers can possibly be held (Dixit, para. 4, 2015). In the words of Ganji, unless there are major changes made, “Qatar’s World Cup will be remembered as a human rights tragedy,” (p. 221, 2016).

How is this possible?

Any way you look at it, this is a clear example of the rich taking advantage of the poor. As seen in the chart below, much of the Qatar 2022 World Cup workforce is made up of some of the poorest countries in the world.

Qatar Population Makeup 2017

Nationality Population Percent of total* Data recency
India 650,000 25.00% Dec 2016
Nepal >350,000 13.50% Jan 2017
Qatar 313,000 12.10% Jun 2016
Bangladesh 280,000 10.80% May 2016
Philippines 260,000 10.00% Jan 2017
Egypt 200,000 8.60% Feb 2015
Sri Lanka 145,256 5.60% Dec 2016
Pakistan 125,000 4.80% Oct 2016
Syria 54,000 2.20% Nov 2015
Sudan 50,000 2.10% Apr 2015

Qatar, on the other hand, is one of the world’s richest countries, if not the richest. According to Investopedia, Qatar has the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita in the world, which is a fancy way of saying that Qatar is the country with the most money per person. So why is one of the richest countries in the world being involved in one of the largest human rights scandals in the world right now, especially when they are perhaps under the largest microscope?

qatar
Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world, yet is being accused of taking advantage of poorer nations. (Photo from Irish Mirror)

This is where Compton’s discussion on Mega-events is very important. As stated in his article:

“Integrated spectacle compels us to address a broad range of questions concerning how and why contemporary power relations have become aestheticized in the context of high-volume production systems involving flexible forms of management, labor performance, and an acceleration of production-consumption turnover time,” (Compton, p. 49, 2015).

It is a long quote, but it gets the message across. The World Cup is undoubtedly the “spectacle”, and there is a lot of pressure on it to be as spectacular as possible. As discussed by scholar Guy Debord, the spectacle distracts people from reality as we are bombarded with images that mediate our relationship with reality (para. 1, 1967). For example, when sports networks broadcast the 2022 World Cup to millions of people, do you think the reality of the foreign worker’s situations will also be broadcasted equally?  The preparation for the World Cup is the definition of a “high-volume production system” and providing a minimum of eight stadiums, plus supporting residences, is a ridiculous task (Compton, p.49, 2015). Combine this with the fact that Qatar had less than two million inhabitants as of when their bid was selected, and you have a recipe for disaster. It can certainly be argued that there is too much pressure on the host nation to have their World Cup be the best of all time, and that it is impossible to do so efficiently, effectively and ethically without taking shortcuts.

This is by no means pardoning the borderline slavery that has occurred in Qatar, but rather, putting it in context. Even with workers being poorly treated, trained and paid, there is still an estimated $200 billion dollars being invested into this World Cup. The reduction in stadiums due to rising costs can possibly be attributed to an increase in workers rights and pay for foreign workers, as ITUC has certainly been on Qatar’s case since 2013. Qatar is unique to other host nations in that it simply does not have the population or workforce to prepare a World Cup without foreign workers. An example of a country that did is South Africa. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was highly criticized because the host nation used money that could have been used on HIV/AIDS prevention to prepare a soccer tournament. However, as discussed by scholar Lindsay Harris, one of the positives of hosting was the increase in job opportunities in South Africa, albeit temporarily (para. 11, 2011). Qatar does not have this luxury, and foreign workers are needed.

Which foreign workers are used and how they are treated is a matter of political economy, which is partly concerned with how power, wealth, and class relationships are managed (Corrigan, p. 43, 2013). While Thomas Corrigan discusses how the political economy of sports shapes new media, much of what he says can also be directly applied here. He states that “capital accumulation is fundamental to the system’s perpetuation” and that “capitalism’s inherent contradictions make it prone to accumulation-threatening crises” (Corrigan, p. 45, 2013) . In other words, money talks, and anything will be done for the accumulation of wealth. With access to labourers who come from impoverished backgrounds, taking advantage of these workers is perhaps not as surprising as it should be.

qatar 2
For many foreign workers, Qatar represented an opportunity to make money and return their savings to their homes. (Photo from Global Construction Review)

As for how the rest of the world has allowed this to happen, Corrigan’s work can also provide an answer. Media controls consumption and therefore awareness, and the mass media is simply not covering the events in Qatar as much as they should be (Corrigan, p. 43, 2013). From the perspective of the mass media, the 2018 World Cup is set to begin in a few months, so of course they will favour storylines on this year’s spectacle rather than it’s successor. It can be inferred that if the same working conditions as Qatar’s were provided in a western country such as the United States, the media would be much more attentive of it. News, in many ways, is chosen, and Qatar is simply not the most newsworthy story right now from the perspective of the mass media. We may see this change following the 2018 Russia World Cup, and certainly as we approach 2022.  

Questions we should ask ourselves:

What has occurred in Qatar is a tragedy, and steps have to be taken to assure something like this does not occur again for the sake of “spectacle”. Before that, however, it is important to question the relationship that our world has with Mega-events, particularly the World Cup.

How important is it that we see countries compete in the World Cup every four years? Is this event worth the lack of safety, poor living conditions, and generally awful treatment that foreign workers have experienced in Qatar?

Why must we have a bidding process for deciding who hosts the World Cup? Are there not enough stadiums in Europe and the rest of the world for there to be set World Cup locations?

Why do we encourage the building of stadiums for Mega-events, especially when many of these stadiums cause problems for the host nation and are not used effectively post-event? Rather than a minimum, should we not place a maximum for stadiums needed for the World Cup and other Mega-events?

Why do we as a society continue to favour Mega-events over political economy issues such as those seen in Qatar? Is it that we do not care, or that the mass media does not choose to present these issues as it would likely damage the amount of money made off of these events?

Conclusion and recommendations:

We have now discussed what is going on in Qatar, and how we as a society have justified it’s happening. What we have seen is that working conditions for foreign workers in Qatar are horrid, and the kafala system essentially has these foreign workers contracted as slaves. This is a clear case of the rich taking advantage of the poor, and we as a society have justified it due to our relationship with the “spectacle” and Mega-events. Without proper intervention, history may remember Qatar 2022 more for the human rights tragedies that occurred than the soccer that was played.  The following are recommendations for the situation in Qatar, as well as recommendations to ensure that what has happened in preparation for 2022 World Cup will not happen again.

  • Increased mass media involvement in concern with foreign workers in Qatar to hold contractors accountable. 
  • An establishment of a Migrant Resource Centre in Qatar to aid with foreign workers and provide legal services (Ganji, p. 249, 2016).
  • A removal of the bidding process for the World Cup, and having set locations with appropriate infrastructure to host the event. This would remove the pressure of building multiple stadiums and residences for the event on the host nation.
  • Allowing for more than one host country, and instead, hosting the tournament in a region. For example, the World Cup could be played in stadiums across Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands concurrently without being inconvenient for travel. 

 

References:

Black, S. (2014). Unfree Labour and the Sports-Industrial Complex. Canadian Dimension,48(3), 42nd ser. Retrieved April 5, 2018, from https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/1543287593?accountid=13800&rfr_id=info:xri/sid:primo.

Compton, J. (2015). Mega-events, media and the integrated world of global spectacle. 48-64.

Corrigan, T. F. (2013). The Political Economy of Sports and New Media. Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media, 43-54. Retrieved April 5, 2018.

Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. New York: Verso, 1998. Print.

Dixit, P. (2015). Let the dead speak! Mobility, visibility and (in)security in Qatar. Critical Studies on Security, 3(1), 112-117. doi:10.1080/21624887.2015.1005419

Ganji, S. K. (2016). Leveraging the World Cup: Mega Sporting Events, Human Rights Risk, and Worker Welfare Reform in Qatar. Journal on Migration and Human Security, 4(4), 221-259. Retrieved April 5, 2018, from https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/1931567336?accountid=13800&rfr_id=info:xri/sid:primo.

Harris, L. (2011). Mega-events and the developing world: A look at the legacy of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. South African Journal of International Affairs, 18(3), 407-427. doi:10.1080/10220461.2011.623828

Hayajneh, A. Z., Elbarrawy, H., Elshazly, Y., & Rashid, T. (2017). Football and Sustainability in the Desert, Qatar 2022 Green World Cup’s Stadiums: Legal Perspective. European Journal of Social Sciences, 55(4), 475-493. Retrieved April 5, 2018, from http://www.europeanjournalofsocialsciences.com/issues/PDF/EJSS_55_4_09.pdf

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