Sports fans and soccer analysts around the world are already praising this year’s World Cup tournament as one of the most entertaining ever played. And, thanks to a surprisingly solid performance from team USA, the world’s most popular sport seemed to gain a new foothold among a widening fanbase in the United States.
Yesterday’s final, in which Germany bested Messi’s Argentina by a single goal, set TV ratings records around the world.
In many ways, despite being marred in controversy, the future for FIFA’s World Cup tournament has never been brighter. But, even as the game itself continues to shine, much bigger issues than soccer threaten to overshadow the game.
The Qatar Controversy
In 2022, the small Middle Eastern nation of Qatar will host the tournament. Since the announcement, there has been widespread criticism for the decision to award Qatar with the games, for both practical and political reasons: Summer temperatures there regularly reach above 110 degrees; state officials have launched campaigns to educate tourists about the country’s strict Islamic religious standards for dress; and there is mounting evidence that a World Cup official received bribes in exchange for giving Qatar the games (an accusation Qatar denies).
But beyond the corruption and potential cultural tensions, there is one reason Qatar has been a terrible choice to host the World Cup: Their awful human rights record.
A report just released by “the Qatar Foundation,” a non-profit organization run by the mother of Qatar’s emir, shifted blame for the country’s egregious human right’s problems to shady job “recruiters” and overseas traffickers. Though officials in the country have promised new measures to ensure migrant workers building their massive World Cup stadiums will be paid and treated fairly.
But for many, it’s too late.
A Migrant Worker’s Nightmare
James Lynch, a researcher for Amnesty International, told the Wall Street Journal, “Many of the report’s findings are consistent with our research into abuses in the recruitment of migrant workers in Indonesia, India and Nepal,” but he also added, “The critical need is for governments of destination countries like Qatar and countries of origin to work more effectively together to combat these practices and hold accountable those responsible for what can amount to human trafficking.”
Before this year’s games kicked off, ESPN’s documentary program E:60 did a story about the heartbreaking plight of poor migrant workers—mostly from south Asian nations like Nepal—that underscored the travesties being allowed by officials in Qatar.
The story reported that 94 percent of Qatar’s labor force is made up of migrant workers, many of whom were tricked into predatory “recruitment” loans, that essentially enslave them to their employers. In May, after international criticism, Qatar officially said it would be ending the “sponsorship” program, and has promised to crack down of the loan system, but for those who accepted “employment contracts,” life has become a nightmare. Once they were brought to Qatar from their home countries, their passports were taken, contracts were torn up and an “exit visa”—the only way to leave—could only be granted by an employer. The workers become instantly indebted after taking out travel loans and have no way of seeking legal assistance once they are essentially imprisoned in unsanitary labor camps.
The story showed how the country that has the highest per capita income in the world and is shelling out nearly $200 billion to pay for the games, busses migrant workers to hellish labor camps more than 20 miles outside of town.
The work is brutal. So far hundreds have died from accidents, heart attacks and suicide.
The International Trade Union Confederation estimated that by the time the 2022 games begin, 4,000 migrant workers will have died in construction accidents, by calculating the rate of fatal work-site incidents.
That’s 12 people every week.
The Price Is Already Too High
Even if the country makes good on implementing reforms, ends the controversial kafala system (which prevents workers from leaving) and restores some worker rights, the price has already been too high. This spring, even the Qatar government acknowledged that nearly 1,000 migrant workers had died while working in the country.
This is a human rights tragedy.
Ultimately, the reforms being instituted and the global awareness being brought to migrant workers in Qatar may have an impact on people who would otherwise become future victims of this form of human slavery. But for now, Qatar is going unpunished for allowing this to happen. There have been some who have called for FIFA to strip Qatar of the games, but that possibility remains uncertain.
The Love of the Game?
The beauty of the World Cup isn’t just found in the soccer. It’s found off the field. The tournament brings nations small and large from around the world together for a single shared experience. The beauty of the soccer tournament is that once every four years, we forget the things that make us all so different and focus on one thing we share: The love of the game.
We can’t let what’s happening in Qatar take that sense of togetherness away by forgetting those who need the world’s attention the most. We can’t ignore what’s happening to people—who are having their own humanity ripped away—while the world sits back and just watches soccer.