Disclaimer: This article is written by Amwene Etiang. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the team editor nor any entities they represent.
The World Cup this year has been historic, to say the least. It cost a whopping $220 billion, was held in December and finally settled a 10-year debate on whether Messi is greater than Ronaldo. Furthermore, it has been mired in controversy. The debates on the pitch about fouls, penalties and headers have been as heated, if anything less, than those about how the stadiums were made and what the position of politics is in football. Reflecting on the past month of sporting action, this article will seek to address some issues raised by these off-pitch debates.
Migrant workers’ rights.
When Qatar was announced as the host of the 2022 World Cup, rights groups began to raise questions about whether it would be fit to host such an event. Particularly due to its labour laws which created conditions that enabled the exploitation of workers. Significant was its kafala sponsorship system. By this law, migrant workers were not allowed to leave their employer or the country without permission from their employer. Thus binding employees to their employers and giving the employers room to exploit their workers. In 2013 an investigation by The Guardian led to a commitment from the government to end the kafala system. In September 2020, this system was ended and Qatar as well introduced a minimum wage. Seven years following the Guardian report which predicted that 4,000 workers would die in the 10 years leading up to the World Cup.
In 2021, a Guardian investigation across multiple countries concluded that approximately 6,500 workers died in the lead-up to the World Cup. In response to this, the Qatari government said that this figure is proportional to the number of migrant workers in Qatar which stands at 2 million. They also explained that work-related deaths were 10% of the 6,500. However, at a public forum, when the question of these non-work related deaths was raised to a Qatari government official by Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, it was avoided. Furthermore, it has been alleged by Amnesty International that this figure has been tampered with by post-mortems not being carried out and alleged fabricated causes of death.
Nonetheless, the ILO and ITUC applauded the Qatar government’s reforms of their labour laws as a step in the right direction. In making a report on the status of migrant workers in Qatar, Equidem interviewed a man called Anish Adhikari. He was a construction worker at Lusail Iconic Stadium. He spoke of how they had to work for 14 hours a day with limited water and were at times served rotten food. When FIFA Inspectors went to the stadium to review the progress of the construction, the workers were huddled into buses and sent back to the camp where they lived. This cover-up was arranged by managers of the Hamad Bin Khalid Contracting Company. Notably, it has not responded to the allegations in the Equidem report and neither did it respond to questions asked by Equidem in the process of coming up with the report. The company is responsible for contracting many of the migrant workers. A company owned by the ruling Al Thani family in Qatar.
The Equidem report also found that the workers who contributed to building the infrastructure for the World Cup worked in “captive and controllable conditions”. This report came out after the reforms were passed by the government. This calls into question the effectiveness of the Qatari government’s strategy in tackling the issue of abuse of migrant workers. Another key player in the implementation of the reforms introduced by the Qatari was the Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. Established in 2011, this committee was responsible for the infrastructure and operations around the World Cup. Equidem criticised the Committee for not having much of an impact on the conditions of migrant workers following the 2020 reforms. The Committee contracted Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), a union, to inspect the construction sites. In response to criticism, the Committee claimed that following reports from BWI, 450 violations were reported to the Ministry for Labour in Qatar, 270 contractors were watchlisted, 70 contractors were demobilised and 7 were blacklisted. Whether the HBK will be included in the watchlist for its intimidation of its workers will be another test of the reforms introduced by the Qatari government.
Politics and football
As if a sign of the times, top officials at FIFA including Gianni Infantino sent a letter to the nations taking part in the World Cup urging them to “focus on football” and not use it in ideological or political battles.
This is confusing in two ways in particular.
Firstly, in a video of Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA defending the choice of Qatar as the nation to host the World Cup he said he felt gay, African, Arab and Qatari. Then proceeded to say that “we” Europeans are in no position to criticize Qatar after the way they have acted for the past 3,000 years. In an attempt to justify their decision to host the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Infantino appealed to identity politics to portray himself and FIFA as accepting, diverse and respectful of all people.
Secondly, FIFA’s decision to issue yellow cards to players who wore armbands saying One Love shows support for the LGBT community. It is not apparent how wearing an armband saying One Love affects how a player fouls another, dives or disrespects another player or the referee on the pitch. Giving a yellow card to players for wearing an armband represents a political and ideological position, in itself is political and ideological. It was a means of silencing players’ expressions of their solidarity with the LGBT community. It is in no way related to the game of football as it is played. Using a yellow card, a penalty for foul play, to prevent a player from wearing an armband signifying their position on a political and human rights issue was grossly misplaced.
The issuance of the yellow card was to deter players from using their influence to advocate for the fair treatment of all people. This demonstrates how inherently political football is. Football is arguably the world’s biggest sport. FIFA made $776 million in 2021, a non-World Cup year. Top players in the Premier League earn approximately $3.9 million a year. Sums that come from not only their salaries from their clubs but also their brand deals because of how influential they are. Indeed, part of the motivation for Qatar hosting the World Cup was to showcase itself as a modern state, improve its relations with its neighbours and improve its image according to Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times. After all, there is no way a state can spend $220 billion, much of which being public funds, on a project that is not going to be of political benefit to them.
To say that football should not be involved in politics is akin to saying that a cake is delicious but not because it has sugar in it. In its current form, global football is too powerful and profitable to be divorced from politics.
Despite reforms introduced by the Qatari government, there are hundreds of stories known and perhaps thousands unknown of workers who have died subject to poor working conditions. Workers who remain without sufficient pay despite the introduction of a minimum wage. The implementation of laws to lead to effective reform in Qatar may take some time, as the implementation of laws generally does. Although these reforms were largely spurred on by Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, it is unfortunate that they were passed so close to its inception and therefore led to thousands of workers not benefitting from them despite government promises. Hopefully, however, the impact of these reforms will grow in the decades following the World Cup. The political ramifications of the World Cup as well have exposed how interlinked football and politics are – hopefully putting to bed any notions that sport should be divorced from politics.