Soccer is not meant to be played in 122-degree heat. That’s the potential labor issue FIFA heads have been dealing with in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup. The games are scheduled to be held in Qatar, a small Gulf state with a suffocating summer climate in which the average daily high in July is 106°F.
Officials have a solution to that problem: air-conditioned stadiums and, possibly, moving the event to the winter. What’s been less discussed is who exactly is going to be building those stadiums and under what conditions. Like most Gulf states, Qatar is reliant on a hyper-exploited base ofworkers, most of whom are migrants from South Asia. These laborers don’t just spend 90 minutes on a sweltering pitch — they work 12-hour shifts, every day of the week.
A new report from Amnesty International even goes as far as to say that Qatar’s labor practices “constitute forced labor.” Millions of migrant workers across the region are tied to a kafala system that gives sponsoring employers complete control over workers visas and legal status. On their arrival into the country, it’s customary for management to illegally seize passports and identification. Those attempting to leave early,before the end of their contract, are shaken down for a large fee or forced to give up unpaid wages just to get documentation to travel back home.
Migrant workers are not permitted to join labor unions— a right constitutionally guaranteed to native Qataris — and they work without proper equipment in dangerous conditions. In 2010, 191 workers from Nepal died on the job, another 163 in 2011. All were deemed medically healthy when they left their home country, due to Qatar’s stringent work visa requirements.
The situation of the many, mostly female domestic workers in the Gulf is even more dire. The Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking receives between 200 and 300 requests for help every month from domestic workers who have nowhere else to turn. Unlike construction workers, domestic workers (numbering around 132,000 in 2012) are not even formally protected under Qatar’s labor law because they are sponsored by individuals rather than companies. Theirs is assumed by the law to be a labor of love, the reward for which is often verbal, sexual and physical abuse that goes unpunished.
Those actually getting paid aren’t receiving enough to save and live comfortably in their home countries. Domestic workers earn less than 30 percent of the average wage in Qatar and are far more isolated from their fellow laborers, making organizing impossible.
The kafala system, however, has proven itself useful to capitalists in the thriving Gulf. Qatar has the highest concentration of millionaires in the world—more than 14 percent of households in the tiny monarchy hold one million or more dollars in assets. With one of the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves, the nation of 250,000 people could hardly extract those resources themselves. The 1.5 million migrants are not only a source of productive labor during boom years, but when pressed are easily dispensable. Thousands of workers were sent home during the recent economic crisis — shifting the burden of unemployment to their home countries and keeping domestic political unrest in check.
This political situation lends itself to few answers. In the shortterm, some of the reforms that Amnesty International suggests would be a step in the right direction. The sponsorship system, for example, needs to be removed, which would allow workers to obtain new jobs or leave the country without the permission of their current employers. But Qatar’s political system has demonstrated that migrant workers won’t be able to legislate or litigate their way to a fair wage and safe working conditions. More radically, the self-organization of laborers and their mobilization as independent political actors will be necessary to fight racism and push the Gulf’s ruling class to share the region’s immense wealth with those who create it.
While increased attention from Western critics is welcome, the future is as bleak as ever. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has estimated that Qatar’s pre-2022 World Cup construction boom may lead to the deaths of 4,000 or more migrant workers. That’s a price too steep to pay for “the beautiful game.”