While FIFA continues to sink deeper into a mire of scandal, the deepest hell in the world football body’s dominion is reserved for the workers toiling at the sweltering construction zones of Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host. As the legal turmoil swells in Geneva, however, human rights groups see a potential opening to revisit the controversy over whether Qatar deserves to be hosting the games at all.
But the contrast between law enforcement’s scrutiny of FIFA’s dirty backdoor dealings, versus the relatively subdued official response to Qatar’s industrial homicide, reflects the ethical perversion that drives the football industry.
Days before the US authorities’ corruption indictments hit the fan at FIFA’s Swiss headquarters, Amnesty International aired the latest of several reports on alarming levels of labor abuse and injury linked to Qatar’s World Cup development. Migrant laborers, who make up the vast majority of Qatar’s labor force, primarily in domestic and construction work, face brutal conditions, poverty wages, and virtually no labor protections or recourse against abusive employers. They are often drawn from poorer South and Southeast Asian nations by unregulated recruiters running a global web of debt bondage. A medieval-type contracting arrangement known as kafala effectively bars workers from leaving or changing jobs without their employers’ approval. The draconian system is used for other controversial prestige-seeking projects in the Gulf, such as the migrant labor–fueled developments of New York University’s and the Guggenheim’s branches in Abu Dhabi.
The human toll is stunning: lethal accidents and heat exhaustion related to World Cup development—including facilities, infrastructure, and other commercial projects—have led to, according to a 2014 audit, the deaths of 964 workers from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh in 2012 and 2013 alone. By contrast, South Africa’s World Cup left two dead. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which has long condemned Qatar’s labor rights record, calculates some 1,200 workers have already perished. Data is sketchy, but with a workforce of some 1.5 million, at this rate, about 4,000 casualties will pave the World Cup’s gateway by opening day. Despite pressure from the United Nations, the government has done little to independently investigate construction-related deaths.