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Leon Kaye headshot

FIFA Confronts Legal Challenges Over Human Rights Abuses in Qatar

By Leon Kaye

The enthusiasm over the decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup, which will be the first held in the Middle East, quickly faded over allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. Amnesty International described the upcoming mega sporting event as a “World Cup of Shame.” The group says the migrants from Bangladesh, India and Nepal who are building Qatar’s new soccer facilities have suffered through forced labor, high recruitment fees and long delays in getting paid. International labor rights NGOs allege that as many as 7,000 workers could die due to the Gulf state’s torrid heat, unsafe working conditions and exhaustion.

Qatar’s government vigorously denied allegations of human rights abuses. And soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, alternated between silence and dismissal of what critics say are appalling working conditions and lax safety. But FIFA cannot ignore this controversy much longer. A Dutch labor rights group, the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV), is taking legal action against FIFA in its home base of Switzerland.

In a letter drafted and sent to FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, the FNV asked the soccer association to pay damages to a Bangladeshi migrant worker, Nadim Sharaful Alam, by the end of this month or a court case will be filed in Zurich.

According to FNV, Alam is emblematic of the ongoing abuses migrant workers in Qatar have endured since the oil state fast-tracked the construction of at least eight stadia and other buildings that will host World Cup events. Alam paid almost 4,000 euros ($4,400) to a recruiter in order to work in what he believed to be a financially rewarding construction job in Qatar. But the reality was much different: Alam claimed he lived in squalid conditions for 18 months, had to surrender his passport upon starting work and, eventually, lost his job and was deported. Now back in Bangladesh, he is in far worse financial straits than he was before he moved to Qatar. And the amount of money he received was barely a tenth of what he paid his recruiter.

FNV is demanding only 10,000 euros ($11,000) in compensation for Alam. But that small amount is a pittance compared to the billions of dollars FIFA will most likely generate from corporate sponsorships, television rights and ticket revenues six years from now. Should Alam win his case, it could open the floodgates for thousands of workers to make claims that they were cheated on their wages – not to mention the indignities suffered by the estimated 1 million workers who have been lured to Qatar in preparation for a World Cup that has fomented far more controversy than goodwill.

Critics of Qatar’s World Cup preparations, as well the country’s human rights record in general, point to the Qatar's kafala labor system. Under this labor scheme, all migrant laborers are required by law to have an in-country sponsor, who is usually responsible for their visa, legal status and living conditions. But critics of kafala say it creates conditions ripe for exploitation, from the denial of wages to the confiscation of passports. Last year, Qatar’s emir announced the “end” of the kafala system. But critics, including the NGO Migrants-Rights.org, retorted: “Renaming kafala is not ending kafala.”

The lesson for FIFA is that, just as companies cannot dodge responsibility for what goes on within their supply chains, soccer's global governing body cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening to workers in Qatar. FIFA made an informed decision to have this event in Qatar back in the winter of 2010; the refusal to address ongoing tragedies affecting foreign workers building stadia along the Gulf will further harm the reputation of an organization already bloodied over bribery, corruption and a refusal to play by the rules.

Image credit: Amnesty International

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye