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Grant Whittington headshot

Qatar World Cup Proves to Be Costly for Migrant Workers


It’s Dec. 2, 2010, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter is set to announce which nation will host the World Cup in the distant 2022. Australia, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Qatar all threw their hats in the ring to host the prestigious summer tournament that takes place every four years.

Qatar seemed like the sure dark horse. A nation hardly eclipsing 2 million people; a nation engulfed by the hot, dry sun; a nation with no history of soccer and no architectural foundation to host a tournament of its size had no chance to receive the bid. But it did, and not much has gone right since.

Of all the reasons you could argue Qatar wasn’t suitable to host a World Cup, only the last one induces controversy. Although Qatar is a small Arab country, fans from all across the globe will still load the stadium with tons of support and outcry for their team. Although Qatar is irrefutably humid, the stadiums built for the soccer tournament are climate controlled and solar reducing. And, although Qatar’s soccer history is far from rich, who doesn’t love a hometown underdog? And that brings us to the last point.

Qatar’s lack of readiness to host the World Cup is beyond belief. The country must sprout up nine brand new stadiums and renovate three to hold the desired capacities for these games. Upon receiving the bid in 2010, only one stadium, Khalifa International Stadium, held a capacity of at least 40,000 fans. To compare, the average attendance of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was 52,762.

Unemployed migrants from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, among others, went to Qatar seeking work and money, but instead they found grueling hours in the unforgiving heat. More than a year ago in May of 2014, the Qatar government commissioned a report stating just shy of 1,000 workers have died while working.

A haunting report from the Guardian revealed that Nepalese workers, the most represented group working on the stadiums, died at a rate of nearly one a day, many of them young men who suffered from heart attacks. The investigation also alleged that some Nepalese men haven’t been paid for months, employers have confiscated workers’ passports and identifications, laborers are being denied access to free drinking water, and there is evidence of forced labor.

It’s not only the task of building stadiums scheduled to hold an upwards of 86,250 viewers that are threatening the lives of the workers who made the journey to Qatar, but also the living conditions. An ABC report found that in some districts in Doha, the oil-rich country’s capital, 300 men live in 20 rooms -- sharing kitchens, sleeping-space, bathrooms and, most of all, illnesses.

According to some estimates, Qatar will spend $100 billion on projects for the World Cup. On top of building the stadiums, the country has pledged $20 billion on roads, $4 billion on interconnectivity between Qatar and Bahrain, and $24 billion for a high-speed rail network. That’s all without mentioning the accommodation this country is going to need to support the hundreds of thousands of fans that will need hotels to stay in.

The migrant workers are also in huge debt to the recruitment agents that secured their jobs for them in Qatar. The debts are climbing with interest rates as high as 36 percent, and workers aren’t getting paid sufficient wages, as little as $50 a week if they are fortunate enough to be paid at all. Without documentation, these migrant workers are considered illegal aliens and often can’t leave without fear of arrest because of Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system, which restricts workers from leaving the country without their sponsor company’s permission.

This isn’t the only time FIFA made the news for a less-than-glorious feat. Last week, at a hotel in Switzerland’s mountainous capital city of Zurich, 14 soccer and marketing FIFA officials were arrested and set to face indictment in U.S. court following a bribery scandal. Just days later, Blatter, the president since 1998, was re-elected as the chief man in FIFA despite being the face of the scandal, which is surrounding the authenticity of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid.

Blatter originally claimed the United States and England went arrest-happy because they were denied bids to be World Cup hosts, but the investigations continued. Then, the news broke on Tuesday that Blatter will step down as the head of FIFA's governing body, but only after its organizing committee holds a vote "for the election of my successor," he said at a lunchtime press conference. FIFA is in need of a "profound overhaul," Blatter conceded, but it remains to be seen if this will happen.

Compared to Brazil’s World Cup in 2014, which saw eight people die in construction-related accidents, Qatar’s soon-to-be hosted tournament is looking more like a calamity than a victory. As the death toll rises nearly every day in the country that shares its border with Saudi Arabia, the International Trade Union Confederation suggested up to 4,000 lives could be lost as a result of the games.

All FIFA has said of the matter is that Qatar will remain the host site for the 2022 games featuring 32 of the world’s best teams. Qatari government promised some reform a year ago but doesn't have much, if anything at all, to show for those promises.

The nine new state-of-the-art stadiums will be dismantled after the games seven years from now and reassembled into 22 stadiums in developing countries around the world. This task, if no labor reform is put in place at the time, will likely cause even more deaths and more strife for the migrant workers trying to make a living.

The potential of 4,000 deaths -- all for a month-long tournament in June and July.

Image credit: Omar Chatriwala/Flickr and Mark Kirchner/Flickr

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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