Why we need to save FIFA from a Qatar 2022 disaster
FIFA President Sepp Blatter spent a weekend earlier this year with the Emir of Qatar at the Al Bahr palace in Doha. It wasn’t his first visit to the Emir’s Palace. Since the 2022 World Cup was controversially awarded to Qatar in December 2010, numerous meetings have taken place, modern day slavery has been exposed and reforms have been promised.
But what Sepp Blatter didn’t see in Qatar is that nothing has changed for workers. The walled Al Bahr palace is moments away from a patch-work of dirt streets known as the Industrial Area, home to 600,000 migrant workers building the infrastructure for Qatar to host the World Cup.
Behind trucks beaten up by desert rocks, the only sign this is home to hundreds of thousands of men are the blue and grey overalls strung up to dry, ready for another 12 hour shift. The indignity of these squalid and unsafe conditions smacks of greed.
In a country consisting of only 250,000 Qatari nationals, there are 1.4 million migrant workers, making up around 90 percent of the workforce. They are treated as modern day slaves. Over the next seven years Qatar is embarking on a $150 billion spending spree as it gets ready to host the World Cup. Qatar will need another million workers to complete new roads, metros, railways, deep water port, hotels and stadiums. Whole cities will emerge from the sand.
The street grid of the industrial area is named like New York’s Manhattan, but comes with none of the freedom or hope. Meeting on 49th Street, late one evening, we are ushered quickly and quietly through a makeshift doorway made of corrugated steel.
The first thing you notice is the hundreds of pairs of scuffed and broken work boots lined up alongside bedroom walls. The men they belong to are washing, cooking or hidden in bunk beds in darkened rooms, where grown men share eight, ten twelve to a room. There is no space to unwind, there is no privacy.
The makeshift showers are little more than a trickle of water for hundreds of grown men to wash 12 hours of desert sweat away. Toilets are crammed next to kitchens. Spare cooking gas canisters are stored outside bedrooms. Four water taps offer the only water for cooking and drinking for 150 workers. The rush to reach the taps in the morning and late at night is a scene from refugee camps. Kitchen facilities are nothing short of squalid. Walls blackened with oil, and soot and grease hide the flies.
For the hundreds of men in this camp this is not for just one day, many have become trapped for three, four or more years.
Nearly a year after the Qatar government promised long awaited reforms, new accommodation standards and better conditions, the truth is nothing has changed. Nothing has changed except the Qatari Government has increased their denial of the reality. Qatar’s leaders knowingly choose to impose modern day slavery – the ‘kafala system’ for more than a million migrant workers.
Kafala is the work visa system under which workers are recruited to build and service Qatar. Many borrow thousands of dollars to pay for illegal recruitment fees, are forced to live in squalor and are paid poverty wages in the richest country in the world.
Once at work people are left without effective grievance procedures or dispute settling measures and are at risk of injury or death with no records or responsibility from companies or the government. Then they are denied the choice to change jobs, held captive by an employer who alone can choose if and when to sign over ownership of the worker to another employer.
Increasingly we see people trafficked into Qatar, brought into the country by a company with a fake contract, but on arrival are given no job or income for month. Relying on food hand-outs is the only thing that stops these young men from starving. Ultimately if any worker wants to escape this, they can then be denied an exit visa, as this is only granted by their employer, meaning they are trapped in Qatar.
While Sepp Blatter sat in the Emir’s palace, and was assured that migrant workers are happy and things have changed I saw living conditions in camps that are more isolated and even more squalid than have been exposed in the past. I met workers who have a contract that is ignored, found that wages that are getting lower, and for some African and Asian workers felt the despair of people trafficked into Qatar without jobs and told to wait without wages for months.
This is the ugly face behind the glitter – cities being built by workers who are not respected and valued for the massive contribution they are making to the future wealth of Qatar. Or the contribution they are making to allow FIFA to host the World Cup in Qatar.
The discrimination, the racism, the denial of rights adds up to apartheid and a model of employment that is simply slavery. And there is a conspiracy of silence by governments and major sporting and cultural institutions that allow it to continue.
In two weeks football associations around the world will vote for a new President of FIFA. FIFA can save itself from the catastrophe of a World Cup built on modern slavery in Qatar, by electing a candidate who will act decisively to support workers’ rights. The world must not be duped by Qatar’s empty promises of reform.