Amid the whirlwind of the recent athlete strike wave against racism, Human Rights Watch issued a report on a different set of workers in the world of sports who are also struggling but lack the star power of the Milwaukee Bucks or tennis star Naomi Osaka. The report detailed how guest workers in Qatar, who have been toiling in abject conditions to build stadiums, hotels, and transportation for the 2022 men’s soccer World Cup, continue to experience horrific exploitation.
The coronavirus—and the Trump administration’s stratospheric incompetence in the face of it—has flung what Angela Davis calls “disposable populations” smack into the public eye. We see this crude formulation in Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s suggestion to Tucker Carlson that it’s perfectly acceptable to sacrifice the elderly in order to juice the economy and to preserve “the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.”
The sports world has long been fueled by “disposable populations,” whether they are football players whose lives have been turned inside-out by brain damage, baseball players in the Dominican Republic who are sent to “academies” as children only to be cast aside when their talent is found lacking, or the countless college athletes who are treated like revenue-generating chattel. “Disposable populations,” which, Davis asserts, are comprised largely of “populations of people of color and immigrant populations from the countries of the Global South,” are routinely gobbled up and spit out by the sports industrial complex.
Take the Qatar World Cup. It has been a labor rights nightmare from day one. Migrant workers comprise about 95 percent of Qatar’s labor force, journeying from places like Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Nepal, and the Philippines. Upon arrival, they have been subjected to the kafala system, whereby their work visas are tied to their sponsoring employers, who control whether workers can change jobs or leave the country, thereby thrusting them into vulnerable situations that are rife with abuse.
The kafala system has been a recipe for oppression and, as labor reporter Michelle Chen has noted, “the human toll is stunning.” Data from Nepal’s government found that more than 1,400 Nepali workers died working in Qatar between 2009 and 2019. Qatar has promised to abolish the kafala system, but the Human Rights Watch report found a massive chasm between word and deed. Workers continue to have their passports confiscated by their employers, often after forking over hefty fees that are an integral part of widespread, deceptive recruitment processes. Employers routinely abrogate labor contracts and underpay workers—one worker in Qatar who started in June 2019 received his first paycheck, for $228, three months later.
Human Rights Watch interviewed around 100 workers at 60 different Qatari firms “all of whom reported some form of wage abuse by their employer such as unpaid overtime, arbitrary deductions, delayed wages, withholding of wages, unpaid wages, or inaccurate wages.” (And by the way, Qatar allegedly bribed their way into this chance to exploit workers in the first place—people associated with Qatar’s World Cup bid are under indictment for wire fraud and money laundering linked to vote-buying.)
But when it comes to mistreating workers to host a sports mega-event, Qatar is not alone. Last week, the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams announced the completion of their new football stadium in Inglewood, which cost around $5 billion. Lost amid breathless accounts of the stadium’s amenities—it “shimmers amid palm trees and parking lots and a six-acre artificial lake” and “looks as if it arrived from another world,” according to the Los Angeles Times—was the fact that two workers died in the process of stadium construction and dozens others contracted Covid-19.
Workers Juan Beccera and Simon Fite died during construction, with Beccera plunging 110 feet from the stadium’s roof. A lawsuit instigated by Beccera’s family asserts that unsafe working conditions contributed to his death. In addition, at least 75 workers contracted coronavirus while rushing to complete the stadium, having fallen behind schedule. That’s not to mention the gentrification that the stadium project jump-started. African Americans in particular are experiencing the burden of gentrification and displacement in Inglewood. The stadium is slated to host the opening and closing ceremonies for the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics.
Of course, Qatar and Los Angeles are not exact replicas. However, when elites from a country or city decide to host a sports mega-event in the 21st century, or to build a stadium as a so-called revitalization project, they also agree to import a slew of social problems, from displacement, debt, and militarization to worker exploitation and even death.
Journalist Sarah Jeong’s “information-nationalism” ideology is relevant to pondering the dynamics thrumming through Qatar and LA. One of information-nationalism’s central assumptions is that “when your country acknowledges human rights abuses, you are made weak.” We see this in Qatar, which has been slow to recognize worker abuse, but also in LA, where homelessness is a humanitarian crisis in plain sight that is rarely discussed as such.
As Jeong notes, “When you play the game of information-nationalism, you don’t slander your enemies; you tell the truth about them, while hiding the truth about yourself.” This can create a delusional sense of self-forgiveness that enables the creation and maintenance of Davis’s “disposable populations”: In other words, it allows people in the United States to criticize Qatar but not look at Los Angeles. We need to spotlight atrocities committed abroad, of course, but also those that happen at home. As Qatar, LA, and the ongoing coronavirus nightmare show, the merry-go-round of self-delusion must eventually stop before everything unravels. Sometimes sports can be the place where people stand up and say, “No more,” where reality can get a foothold. Let’s hope that day comes sooner rather than later.