This is what modern-day slavery looks like: Scores of Nepalese migrant workers toiling under horrific conditions to build the stadiums and other facilities required for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have been forbidden to return to their homeland for the funerals of family members and loved ones that died in the April 2015 earthquake, a disaster which claimed approximately 8,000 lives and injured an additional 19,000.
As reported by The Guardian, Tek Bahadur Gurung, Nepal’s labor minister, is not only making this latest human-rights violation public, he’s demanding accountability from both Qatar and FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, which is being indicted by the U.S. on 147 charges of corruption and money laundering.
“After the earthquake of 25 April, we requested all companies in Qatar to give their Nepalese workers special leave and pay for their air fare home. While workers in some sectors of the economy have been given this, those on World Cup construction sites are not being allowed to leave because of the pressure to complete projects on time,” Gurung said. “They have lost relatives and their homes and are enduring very difficult conditions in Qatar. This is adding to their suffering.”
“Difficult conditions” doesn’t begin to describe what’s occurring to workers here. A 2014 report from the International Trade Union Confederation projected that “at least 4,000 people in total will die before the start of the World Cup in 2022.”
That number potentially represents a serious underestimation, given that it was derived from “statistics collected by two embassies only—Nepal and India—which account for around 5% of the total migrant workforce.”
The report also makes it clear that “Whether the cause of death is labeled a work accident, heart attack (brought on by the life threatening effects of heat stress) or diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same—working conditions.”
The first-person accounts in the report are the stuff of nightmares. And yet, this indentured servitude is entirely legal under Qatar’s kafala system, in which an employer has near-total control over the lives of the migrant workers that are fed false promises regarding living conditions, nonexistent safety protocols, wages, and length of employment, and can be kept enslaved by withholding both salaries and passports.
“We have worked hard and just want what is due to us and to go home,” one worker said. “We are stuck now in cramped accommodations, with poor food and no clean drinking water. We are treated like animals.”
A construction manager describes arriving for work “at 5:00 a.m. and there was blood everywhere. I don't know what happened, but it was covered up with no report. When I reported this, I was told that if I didn't stop complaining, I would be dismissed.”
Gurung knows all too well that “nothing will change for migrant workers until FIFA and its rich sponsors insist on it. These are the people who are bringing the World Cup to Qatar. But we are a small, poor country and these powerful organisations are not interested in listening to us.”
No, they’re not. In March, FIFA president Sepp Blatter had a nice chat with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, offering bland, noncommittal statements that “more must be done” and sunnily announcing that “it is encouraging to hear the Emir’s personal commitment to workers’ welfare and to get a sense of the improvements planned for all workers in Qatar.
“This will only be possible through the collective effort of all stakeholders—from the construction companies to the authorities,” Blatter said. “It is clear that Qatar takes its responsibility as host seriously and sees the FIFA World Cup as a catalyst for positive social change.”
That of course is patently ridiculous. Mere days after Blatter’s rubber-stamping, Amnesty International issued a report stating that for the 1.5 million laborers “little has changed in law, policy and practice” in Qatar.
Beyond the rampant corruption, you’d be hard pressed to describe FIFA as a benevolent global actor and force for good. As Amnesty’s gulf migrant-rights researcher Mustafa Qadr said, “The organization [FIFA] has yet to demonstrate any real commitment to ensuring Qatar 2022 is not built on a foundation of exploitation and abuse.”
Organizations like FIFA are deeply invested in selling the myth that sports spread goodness and light to every corner of the world. But the announcement that dictatorships like Qatar and kleptocracies like Russia would be the next two World Cup hosts are evidence of what FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke accidentally let slip in 2013, that countries that espouse democratic principles and take a firm stand on human rights are an impediment to their objectives.
“I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup,” Valcke said. “When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018...that is easier for us organizers than a country such as Germany... where you have to negotiate at different levels.”
What Valcke can’t and won’t state outright is that democracies make it slightly harder to rake in enough cash to make Croesus blush, bulk up the surveillance state to Orwellian levels, and build stadiums that become rotting, useless husks—totems to shameless private-public graft—once FIFA has packed up and gone.
But as David Zirin, the sports editor of The Nation and author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, said at an SXSW panel this March, far from being a cure-all, mega-sporting events like the World Cup, the Super Bowl, and the Olympics can and will “make democratic places more authoritarian.”
Zirin isn’t sure if barring Nepalese workers from going to funerals might begin to swing the tide.
“The hope of course is that the greater spotlight on Qatar means that it'll force the fiefdom to confront its horrific labor practices. The reality, tragically, is that it's the horrific labor practices that make Qatar so damn appealing to FIFA in the first place. One would by necessity negate the other,” Zirin told The Daily Beast.
“In other words, since reform is the enemy of FIFA, it will also be the enemy of the Qatari elite. This will continue without coordinated labor action and international pressure that doesn’t give a damn about the needs of FIFA and the World Cup."
Late Tuesday, the news broke that the U.S. Justice Department, working in concert with the Swiss government, “began an extraordinary early-morning operation here Wednesday to arrest several top soccer officials and extradite them to the United States on federal corruption charges” including “wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering,” according to law enforcement officials.
Sepp Blatter himself was not among those indicted, but if nothing else, it’s a glimmer of hope that FIFA can and will be forced to change.