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Opinion

Why the FAW must support a compensation fund for the migrant workers of Qatar’s World Cup

04 Sep 2022 9 minute read
Qatar’s Lusail Stadium. Picture by Nick Potts / PA Wire

Lewis Owen

On June 5th 2022, Wales qualified for the World Cup. I will never tire of the wondrousness of that statement. Having been long accustomed to a thin gruel of underachievement, punctuated by the occasional stinging morsel of agonising heartbreak, we Welsh football fans have been treated to a feast of success in recent times.

That joyous, unforgettable French adventure in 2016 was followed by another appearance at a major tournament in last year’s European Championship, and now, after an absence of 64 years, Wales will finally join the top table of international football. We’ve never had it so good.

But amidst the relieved, surreal euphoria of that evening’s celebrations on the Canton, the acrid stench of the pyro smoke smelling like the sweetest incense in my nostrils, I could not help but feel a sense of bittersweetness to the occasion, which has only amplified as attention starts to turn to Wales’ opening fixture against the USA on November 21st.

Because by qualifying for Qatar 2022, Wales will be featuring in arguably the most contentious and ethically problematic edition in the tournament’s history. Indeed, the charge sheet is vast, standing in direct contrast to the size of the host nation itself (at a little over half the area of Wales the Gulf state is by far the smallest nation to host international football’s showpiece event).

The World Cup has been no stranger to political controversy throughout its history. Italy’s consecutive triumphs in 1934 and 1938 were used for propaganda purposes by Mussolini, who spared no effort to portray the all-conquering national side as the embodiment of fascist virtue. Behind the ticker-taped veil of Argentina’s glory on home soil in 1978 lay the grim reality of a nation suffering under the yoke of a brutal military dictatorship, which less than a year previously had ‘disappeared’ political opponents within a stone’s throw of the Estadio Monumental, the venue for the final.

And at the most recent edition in Russia, viewers were frequently subjected to the nauseating spectacle of the ever-oleaginous FIFA President Giovanni Infantino cosying up to his friend Vladimir Putin, who by this point had already started to chip away at Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

But in Qatar 2022 we have perhaps the most shameful chapter yet. Controversy has persistently stalked the tournament ever since the awarding of the hosting rights twelve years ago, which were marred by accusations (still under investigation) of corruption and bribery on the part of the FIFA selection committee. Then came the unprecedented (but inevitable) decision to hold the tournament over the cooler winter months, even though the Qatari bid had originally been approved as a conventional summer tournament.

Concerns over the welfare of visiting LGBT fans, in a state that criminalises homosexuality, have also been expressed, especially in the face of typically tin-eared comments by the likes of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter that they should ‘refrain from engaging in sexual activities’. While the Qatari authorities have made public assurances that all fans will be welcomed regardless of their background, reports that hotels are refusing bookings to same-sex couples will only serve to exacerbate the understandable sense of anxiety being voiced by numerous LGBT fan groups.

Exploitation

However, by far the most egregious offence relating to this tournament has been the extent to which its organisation has relied on the obscene exploitation and abuse of migrant workers. As a small nation with no prior record of hosting major sporting events, Qatar has initiated a colossal construction programme to prepare for the World Cup, with seven stadia and a range of public infrastructure – including the entire city for the final match – being built from scratch in the desert sand.

Since Qatar possesses little in the way of a native manual workforce – only 12% of its population are citizens of the country – this task has largely relied on migrant labourers, of whom the majority derive from impoverished communities across the Indian subcontinent.

It soon became apparent that the hubris of Qatar’s World Cup vision would inflict devastating, often lethal, consequences on this vulnerable group. An investigative report by the Guardian in 2014 painted a bleak picture of conditions at World Cup construction sites, with labourers being forced to work twelve-hour days in sweltering temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius, for as little as 82 pence per hour.

Non-working hours offered little respite, with most migrants being housed in the squalid, dangerously cramped living quarters provided by their employers. Those who have courageously spoken out against their intolerable treatment have been subjected to threats, intimidation, and the withholding of their wages.

Unsurprisingly, heat exhaustion has been a deadly and persistent factor in the lives of these migrants. The indignities of their situation have also been attributed to a prevalence of suicides – a grim counterpoint to Giovanni Infantino’s recent, staggeringly misjudged declaration that migrants in Qatar ‘get pride from their hard work’.

Though the precise number of fatalities directly linked to Qatar’s World Cup preparations is unlikely to ever be known, primarily due to inefficient or deliberately inaccurate record-keeping, the Guardian has estimated that approximately 6,500 migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent alone died in Qatar between 2010 and 2020.

Underpinning this cycle of exploitation is the notorious kafala system, widely practiced in Qatar and other Gulf States, which gives employers control over the ability of migrant workers to change their employment status, leave their country of work or open bank accounts. In many cases, migrants are also compelled to cover recruitment fees, which along with the confiscation of their passports to monitor their movements, effectively ties them into a state of bondage with their employer.

Construction work in Qatar. Picture by Alex Sergeev (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Cynical

Though Qatar has now introduced new labour laws to address the worst excesses of kafala, mainly as a consequence of the enhanced scrutiny that came with hosting the World Cup, the implementation of these measures has reportedly been protracted, and instances of abuse continue to be raised mere months before the start of the tournament.

Furthermore, there have been numerous allegations that withheld wages, backdated over several months, remain unpaid. It is not without good reason, therefore, that several human rights organisations have equated the treatment of migrant labourers in Qatar to modern slavery.

The response from the Qatari organisers to these abuses has primarily been a depressing combination of deflection, obfuscation, and disingenuousness. When challenged on the reports of migrant deaths, they have claimed that the figures quoted in media sources were reflective of the natural death rate expected for the demographic in question – overlooking the fact that the vast majority of the deaths, mainly involving otherwise young and healthy men, were vaguely registered as being attributable to ‘natural causes’ or even ‘unknown causes’. Cynical counteraccusations that an anti-Arab agenda is fuelling western narratives on this issue are also commonplace.

The absence of moral leadership from FIFA, an organisation that practically bathes in scandal, has also been striking. As the head of the Norwegian Football Federation Lise Klaveness noted at the most recent FIFA Congress, it has been up to external pressure groups to bang the drum for human rights in Qatar, given the abject failure of FIFA to embed these basic principles as a pre-condition for hosting their premier event.

Legacy

Fans and journalists alike have long wrestled with the question of how to engage with this World Cup in good conscience. Many have advocated boycotting the tournament entirely, and while a co-ordinated threat to this end by some of the more influential national associations may well have forced FIFA’s hand early on, the moment for such action has long passed.

To their credit, a few nations have made gestures to highlight the plight of Qatar’s migrant workforce – notable examples include the Norwegian, German and Dutch sides wearing t-shirts bearing slogans in support of human rights prior to their qualification matches.

In this respect, the stance of the FAW compares favourably with other national associations. Indeed, a recent Amnesty International report commended the FAW for advocating ‘further significant and lasting improvements in the conditions of migrant workers in Qatar’ and for echoing Amnesty’s calls for a Migrant Workers Centre to support such initiatives.

However, it can and should do more. Amnesty has also proposed that FIFA and the Qatari government should establish a compensation fund for migrant workers and their families, of a value at least equivalent to the prize pot of $440 million for the World Cup participants.

Though this measure will not fully erase the stains of this tournament’s toxic legacy, it will at least provide some succour to those who endured such suffering in its organisation. It is for this reason that I have started a petition calling for the FAW to publicly back Amnesty’s proposal, and I hope fellow Welsh football fans will lend their voices to this cause.

The motto of the Welsh national side is ‘Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae’. I’ve always considered it to have a transcendent relevance beyond its obvious sporting connotations. Working together, as equal partners, in the name of a common goal – this is a notion that strongly resonates with my social values, and I’m sure many reading this will feel the same way.

On multiple levels, this year’s World Cup has been a grotesque affront to the ethos of ‘Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae’ – a tournament built on the dehumanisation, the exploitation and, ultimately, the blood of workers, the very people the sport of football was originally meant to represent.

By supporting the establishment of a compensation fund for the migrant workers of Qatar, the FAW can conclusively demonstrate that it lives by the words that its players so proudly wear on their shirts.

The petition calling on the FAW to support a compensation fund for the migrant workers of Qatar can be signed here.


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Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
25 days ago

Excellent call Lewis 👏. Thank you (and Nation Cymru) for bringing the petition to peoples attention

Last edited 25 days ago by Leigh Richards

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