The 2022 FIFA World Cup, which cost Qatar and FIFA over USD 229 billion, will be starting in about ten days. Qatar was selected as the host in 2010, and since then, about 30,000 workers — mostly immigrants — have worked on building the infrastructure for the world’s most popular sports event. From 2013, the treatment of these workers have been widely discussed and criticised. There have been multiple reports by journalists and human rights groups alleging exploitation and abuse of migrant workers, forced labour and even workers’ deaths due to unsafe working conditions. On Thursday, November 10, human rights and labour rights organisation Equidem released a fresh report, alleging that similar violations continued even through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many major construction firms were contracted to build the eight stadiums where the World Cup matches will be played. Sixty workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya and Uganda, who had worked across all eight stadiums, were interviewed for the Equidem study between September 2020 and October 2022. One of them, an Indian worker, was a helper in the stone-cutting section at the Al Bayt stadium, where the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador will be played on November 20. “My job is that of a stone helper, but they also ask me to clear garbage and do cleaning work. If you refuse, sometimes they will slap you,” he told Equidem.
The report included several accounts where workers described instances of physical and verbal abuse from supervisors. Workers mentioned threats of losing wages or the job itself when they tried to take a break when tired or refused to do extra work beyond the ambit of their job. Some of them also complained of being overworked as some of the stadiums – Al Bayt, Al Rayyan, Education City, Khalifa, and Lusail – were severely understaffed. “I worked for fourteen hours a day with a thirty-minute lunch break. We ate while standing. I had no time to catch my breath or rest during these long shifts. There was no overtime pay,” one Kenyan worker told Equidem.
The study also found widespread wage theft, as many workers were paid smaller wages than they were owed, had their wages cut or were made to work without overtime. Many of them said they hadn’t received wages during the pandemic. Most of the workers had arrived in Qatar after having paid exorbitant illegal recruitment fees to agents who often promised a higher salary and better working conditions than what the workers eventually found.
Many workers also reported discrimination against migrant workers based on their nationality. One Indian worker said that Qatari or Arabic-speaking workers were more likely to be able to evade difficult and risky work, while migrant workers would not be allowed to do so. Wages too, were reported to be unequal for workers of different nationalities for the same work. Even among migrant workers, some Nepalese and Bangladeshi workers said that Indian and Filipino workers were likely to get paid more, especially when the supervisors or engineers were from their countries. Preferential treatment was also reported in access to better rest areas, and permissions to take work breaks or to take leaves.
Workers also faced health risks as they were made to work through extreme heat and cold, sometimes working outdoors when the temperature is 45 to 55 degree Celsius without shelter or adequate access to drinking water. They also said they had difficulty accessing medical care, health insurance, and leave. One Nepalese worker who worked at Lusail Stadium even alleged that he witnessed two deaths — a Bangladeshi worker who fell from level 5 to the ground in March 2019, and a Chinese national who fell from a height of about 25 metres in 2021.
Many workers also said their salaries were not increased, and they were not promoted despite working for years with a company. When they tried to switch to a different company, they were hindered, often by refusals to provide no objection certificates (NOCs) to change jobs. The requirement for an NOC or permission from the employer to change jobs, was a provision of the much-criticised kafala system which was ended by Qatar in 2020. The system was removed as it made workers vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and forced labour. Despite its withdrawal, workers mentioned not getting NOCs as a problem for changing jobs, indicating that workers had not been made aware of the changes in labour laws and that employers continued to take advantage of this. Some workers also said that they were fired when they tried to report violations.
In response to the study, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy — responsible for delivering the infrastructure for the FIFA World Cup 2022 — called the report ‘unbalanced’ and claimed there had been significant progress in the treatment of workers. The study itself highlighted a few positive experiences of workers, where companies occasionally adopted good practices in different areas.
Appalling labour abuses were also reported from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Following reports of worker exploitation from Qatar, FIFA had announced in 2016 that the bidding process for the next World Cup in 2026 would include the requirement of implementation of human rights and labour standards. The 2026 FIFA World Cup will be held in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and FIFA appointed a Human Rights Advisory Board in 2017, which made several recommendations before it was disbanded in 2021.
There were several recent changes in Qatar’s labour laws including a new non-discriminatory minimum wage, and FIFA along with Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, have attempted to monitor the treatment of workers. But Equidem found that their inspection processes were flawed, and while the checks led to improvements in some cases, workers often said that they were moved away from the work sites when inspections happened and that they weren’t allowed to communicate with the officials from FIFA or the Supreme Committee. Some workers also said they were afraid of reporting violations as they’d seen other workers being fired for doing so.
While the Supreme Committee had set up Worker Welfare Forums to address workers’ concerns, Equidem found that they couldn’t always deal with problems effectively and were disbanded after construction ended. The organisation recommended setting up an independent Migrant Worker Centre in Qatar and allowing workers to unionise to compensate them for wage thefts and other violations that they suffered for years. “Without urgent commitments from the Qatar government to compensate workers for harms caused on tournament projects and establish an independent Migrant Worker Centre, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will leave a legacy of exploitation and unfilled promises,” the report said.