In late February, The Guardian revealed that, since it was announced that Qatar would host the 2022 football World Cup, over 6,500 migrant workers have died in one of the richest countries in the world. Since 2010, thousands of workers from African and Asian countries (from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Philippines, Kenya, etc.) migrated to Qatar to work in the construction of sports, transport and lodging infrastructures, which includes new stadiums, hotels and an airport.
Although it is unknown how many deaths were directly linked to the construction of the World Cup’s infrastructure, there seems to be enough evidence to affirm that most of these deaths have occurred over the last decade because Qatar was chosen to organize the tournament. The Qatari government, however, attributes most of these deaths to be “natural deaths”. The Guardian and well-renowned organizations like Amnesty International criticize the lack of transparency regarding the actual causes of these deaths.
The Guardian’s report and the imminent start of the qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup has driven the European Centre for Economic Policy Analysis and Affairs (ECEPAA) to get involved into the study of the violation of labor rights surrounding the organization of the event. ECEPAA met with Emile Franck, member of Amnesty International since 1983 and coordinator of the Persian Gulf in the French-speaking Belgian branch of Amnesty International to learn more about the situation in Qatar and discuss some of the most delicate issues.
In recent years, Amnesty International has focused on denouncing the labor conditions that migrant workers face and on exercising pressure on public and private institutions, including the authorities of Qatar and the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). Franck points out that Amnesty International has not only denounced the conditions that migrant workers involved in the construction of infrastructures for the World Cup, but also for other kinds of migrant workers. Regarding domestic workers, for example, Franck states that “there is 170,000 in Qatar and there is not a single one that has not been victim of human rights’ violations”. “We try to pressure them to change, to end with the famous Kafala system”, says Franck. The Kafala system allows the employer to have an almost full control over the migrant worker. It is common for employers to confiscate their employees’ passport and to force them to work in inhuman conditions.
Amnesty International is critical with the role of the FIFA. Franck says that the organization considers “the FIFA to be as responsible as the authorities of Qatar concerning the problems that are happening in the country”.
Asked regarding the role of Amnesty International concerning the denunciation of the labor conditions in Qatar (not only for the migrant workers involved in the construction of World Cup infrastructures but for migrant workers as a whole) and the Kafala system, Franck admits that, while the organization is extremely present (including trips to Qatar to report the situation by photographing and interviewing people), it is complicated to get the mainstream media to discuss the situation in the Persian Gulf.
Regarding the attempts to boycott or demand the cancelation of the event, Franck holds that Amnesty International “does not have a position concerning a boycott or a decision, but as soon as a decision is taken, we work to ensure that human rights, the rights of the workers in Qatar, are respected”. “Nothing has been respected. It is just recently that the Qatari are starting to finish with the Kafala system. Recently they accepted to give actual job contracts to the workers”, states Franck. And while he recognizes that they are happy with the new measures, there is still a long way to go. He claims that, in Qatar, “there is still slavery, but we have done half of the job”.
Amnesty International considers that the FIFA is, on Franck’s own words, “co-responsible” for the human rights’ violations in the construction of the infrastructures for the 2022 World Cup. “It’s like witnessing a crime; you have not killed the person in front of you, but you have not said anything”, illustrates Franck. Furthermore, Franck emphasizes that the FIFA also allowed Russia to host the World Cup, another country where human rights violations are very much present.
As members of the FIFA, Franck also considers that the national federations are responsible. “They can as members of the FIFA, pressure FIFA to declare itself as co-responsible and especially to pressure Qatar even more to change the laws regarding the conditions of the migrant workers in Qatar”. As a Belgian branch of Amnesty International, they try to pressure the Belgian Federation since “national federations have an important role to play to pressure the FIFA”. “But Amnesty never demands a boycott”, Franck reiterates.
Franck also points out that an increasing number of clubs in Norway are pressuring the national federation to boycott the World Cup if the national team successfully qualifies for the final rounds of the competition. Nevertheless, Franck also explains that, if Norway ends up boycotting the competition, the FIFA will ban them from participating in the 2026 World Cup. “That is disgusting!”, Franck exclaims.
As far as players are concerned, apart from a few exceptions, Franck acknowledges Amnesty International has not explicitly tried to contact them and exert pressure on them. Instead, there are well-renowned current and former football players that are engaged to promote the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Some economists and political scientists are opposed to the arguments given by Amnesty International and other organizations regarding the rights of the workers. These academics argue that the workers are not slaves since they know what the labor conditions are and that they are free to decide if they want to go to work there or not. In addition, they claim that increasing salaries and labor conditions would lead to higher unemployment rates. Franck rejects such arguments. Regarding the working conditions he claims that “they do not know what is awaiting them”. He therefore states that the countries of origin are also responsible for the violations of human rights in the Persian Gulf and that they must step forward in defending the rights of their citizens.
The report by The Guardian has shaken once again the already highly discredited organization of the 2022 World Cup and organizations like Amnesty International are working towards pressuring the main actors and raising awareness about the harsh conditions that migrant workers suffer in Qatar and several other countries in the Persian Gulf. However, the World Cup is only one year and a half away and, while things have changed over the past ten years, the situation remains extremely tough and it seems inevitable that hundreds of migrant workers will die before the opening whistle on November 2022 in the Al Bayt Stadium (Al Khor, Qatar).
“We want them to be considered as normal workers, with a right to form a union, to have the right to live a decent life in Qatar.” – Emile Franck, coordinator of the Persian Gulf for the French-speaking branch of Amnesty International Belgium.
The interview with Emile Franck was conducted in French on Tuesday, March 9th. The statements from the interview have been translated to English. The article has been shown to Mr. Franck before its publication in the blog of the European Centre for Economic Policy Analysis and Affairs (ECEPAA).
Benjamin Powell and Matt Zwolinski. The Ethical and Economic Case Against Sweatshop Labor: A Critical Assessment. In: Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 107, no. 4, 2012, pp. 449-472.
Kali Robinson (Council on Foreign Relations). What is the Kafala System. 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-kafala-system
The Guardian. Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded. 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/23/revealed-migrant-worker-deaths-qatar-fifa-world-cup-2022