The World Cup and off-field harm

Qatar will require ongoing pressure on the Gulf state’s authorities and FIFA to address serious abuses, writes CSP officer Helen Russell

[image Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo]

The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off on 20 November in Qatar and will see 32 teams compete to raise the winner’s trophy on 18 December. This is the first time that the competition has been held in the Middle East. Since being awarded the tournament in 2010, the decision to hold the competition in Qatar has been mired in controversy that includes serious concerns about the lack of human and workers’ rights in the country. 

There are two million migrant workers in Qatar, representing 95 per cent of the country’s workforce and the majority are employed in the construction sector, building new stadiums and infrastructure, including a new airport, public transports systems and hotels. Since 2010 more than 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have died in the country working on World Cup projects, according to a report by the Guardian newspaper in 2021. And for reasons space constraints don’t allow room for to explain in this article, this is an underestimate. 

It’s not just the high number of deaths that is shocking – there are continued reports of large scale exploitation of migrant workers, including some being subjected to forced labour, illegal long hours in the dangerous heat, a lack of time off and wage abuses, with some workers not being paid for months.  


After years of inaction by the government, high profile campaigns run by human rights organisations, football fans groups and trade unions, forced Qatar and the World Cup organisers into making some gradual reforms to the country’s labour laws. 

In 2017 Qatar entered into an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to introduce legal reforms to improve working and living conditions. The most important change is the reform of the ‘kafala’ system, an exit visa system which prevented workers from leaving the country without their employers’ permission. Employer consent was also necessary to change jobs, obtain a driving license, rent accommodations and open financial checking accounts. As president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Sharan Burrow said: ‘The Gulf states were fundamentally slave states.’

Other reforms since then include a law to protect domestic workers, new labour courts, compensation for wage theft, a minimum wage, improved labour inspections and legislation to protect workers from heat stress. It is in large part due to the endeavours of the ITUC, trade unions such as the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) and the Playfair campaign run by the TUC, that this progress in labour rights has been made.

Enforcement lacking

There have also been some internal reforms within FIFA, including the adoption of policies and actions to integrate human rights into FIFA’s regulatory framework. These include adopting a human rights policy, having new bidding regulations, establishing a human rights advisory board and the introduction of a complaints mechanism.  

However, a lack of enforcement of the labour reforms, structural barriers to change and the narrow group of workers covered by FIFA’s commitments means that thousands of workers still face exploitation and abuse. In an attempt to deal with these ongoing issues and to get redress for past abuses, the #PayUpFIFA campaign was launched this May by a coalition of trade unions and human rights organisations (including Amnesty International to which the CSP is affiliated). The key demand is that deep-pocketed FIFA address its past failures by paying compensation to the thousands of victims and/or their families who have not yet received adequate remedy. 

As well as a lack of labour rights, there are other serious human rights violations that persist in the country and these also need to be addressed to guarantee a truly inclusive World Cup for players, their families and fans. Whilst there has been movement on labour rights there has not been changes in the law on LGBTQIA+ or women’s rights.

If there is to be any positive legacy of the World Cup it will require ongoing pressure on Qatar authorities and FIFA to successfully implement, enforce and monitor the new labour law reforms prior to, during and most importantly after the World Cup has finished. Qatar is bidding for other events such as the Olympics 2036 and the International Olympic Committee really needs to consider what type of legacy remains after the World Cup, before deciding whether Qatar is shortlisted for the Games.

LGBTQIA+ and women

Same sex relations are illegal and Pride House, which the CSP supported at the Commonwealth Games, is not able to have a presence at the tournament, as it is illegal to even discuss LGBTQIA+ issues. It has been agreed that LGBTQIA+ flags will be allowed during the tournament but there are still serious concerns about the safety of LGBTQIA+ people during the event. 

The system of ‘male guardianship’ in Qatar denies women the right to make many key decisions about their lives. Women have to get permission from their male guardians to get married, work in many jobs, study overseas on government scholarships, travel abroad until certain ages, and access some types of reproductive health care, according to a Human Rights Watch Report. In addition women cannot be their children’s primary guardian, even when divorced. This restricts women’s ability to live full, productive, and independent lives.

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