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The World Cup’s biggest issue: modern slavery and dead workers

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Swiss prosecutors have begun an investigation into possible corruption in the bidding process that awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup. The investigation will look at whether "criminal mismanagement and ... money laundering" helped Qatar gain rights to host the global competition.

Results from the corruption investigation won't be available for a while. But one scandal involving the Qatar games is already obvious: the widespread and vast abuse of migrant workers there helping the tiny monarchy prepare for the games.

Recent investigations into working conditions reveal a horrific construction sector, one that leaves workers trapped in the country and sometimes without access to their wages. FIFA officials must have known that giving hosting rights to Qatar would have directly and undeniably meant funneling money to one of the most horrific construction sectors in the world.

"My company has never given me my ID so at any time the police can arrest me and I will be stuck in jail. Because of this I rarely leave my camp," Ganga Prasad, a construction worker, told Amnesty International. "My life is just the construction site and this dirty room. If I could I would change jobs, but I can’t because my sponsor has my passport and won’t let me work for another company."

Qatar's migrant worker system is a blight on humanity

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A migrant worker at a camp for foreign workers in Qatar. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)

Qatar relies heavily on migrant workers: about 94 percent of the workforce, or 1.5 million people, come from places like India and Sri Lanka to work in the tiny Gulf monarchy. A lot of them work in construction, and many are assigned to the massive number of projects required by the 2022 World Cup.

Working conditions are, in many cases, horrendous. Multiple reports from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the International Trade Union Confederation, and even a contractor employed by the Qatari government have come to basically the same conclusion: migrant workers frequently don't get paid for months at a time, are prevented from leaving the company or the country, and are forced to work in impossibly hot weather and conditions that virtually guarantee some will die.

In one migrant worker labor camp Amnesty researchers visited, "sewage was leaking from the ground — apparently from the camp's septic tank — and flowing down into the street, where it had collected in a large stagnant pool. Piles of rubbish were mounting up at the camp, apparently because the company had not paid for them to be collected, and the piles of rubbish attracted swarms of insects."

There was no electricity or running water. When Amnesty informed the Qatari authorities of this, they provided a small generator — and then took it away three days later.

Wages are so late that "it comes to the point we are starving," a Kenyan worker told Global Post. "But we don't have any other option. We cannot strike." Qatar bans migrant workers from forming unions.

Much of the issues stem from something called the kafala system, essentially a sponsor program for migrant workers. Under kafala rules, workers have to be "sponsored" by their employer, and are forbidden to switch jobs. To leave Qatar, migrant workers need an "exit permit" from their sponsors. Unable to leave jobs or the country without their employers, and prohibited from collectively bargaining, Qatar's migrant workers have virtually no power — and thus no way to protest the utterly horrific working conditions.

Migrant workers are dying — in shockingly large numbers

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This is what the camps look like. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)

One report estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will die between 2014 and the 2022 World Cup. "Whether the cause of death is labelled 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 ITUC concluded, using data from the Indian and Nepalese embassies.

Some numbers suggest a direct link between the death toll and the World Cup. A Guardian investigation found that using figures provided by Nepal's government, one Nepalese citizen working on World Cup–related infrastructure dies every two days. If you factored in workers from India, Sri Lanka, and other countries with large migrant worker populations, the numbers must be higher.

This casualty count, astonishing as it is, makes sense given the working conditions for migrant workers. "I went on site this morning at 5:00 AM and there was blood everywhere," one worker told the ITUC. "I don't know what happened, but it was covered up with no report."

This kind of neglect seems to happen pretty frequently. "As a painter, I have to climb quite high," one Nepalese worker told Amnesty. "People do fall and get hurt. If they get hurt they [the company] don’t treat them, they get sent back [to their home countries]."

Migrant worker conditions aren't being fixed, and it's FIFA's problem


FIFA president Sepp Blatter. (Sebastian Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

While the Qatari government has promised reform, "the changes proposed by the government are inadequate and will not address the daily abuse faced by tens of thousands of migrant workers across the country," a new report from Amnesty International finds. The kafala system is basically untouched: migrant workers still can't switch jobs or change employers at will. They also still can't form unions.

While Qatar's government has tried some reforms, like prohibitions on work during the hottest days, Amnesty's interviews with workers found that these weren't enforced at several workplaces. The inspector's office is still dramatically understaffed. The reforms that actually have some bite, like increasing the penalty on late wage payment, aren't strong enough to make up for the remaining issues.

This isn't just Qatar's problem: it's FIFA's. According to Amnesty, FIFA has made a serious effort to look into the scheduling of World Cup matches to ensure players don't play in extreme heat. But its efforts on migrant workers' rights have consisted largely of ineffectual "public statements" and meetings with officials.

FIFA's campaign "falls far short of the concrete action taken by FIFA in respect of other issues of international concern," Amnesty concludes. "FIFA has a clear responsibility to act in the face of the evidence of labour exploitation, knowing that it is migrant construction workers and migrant service industry workers who are on the frontline in delivering the World Cup experience in Qatar."

FIFA chose to give the World Cup to Qatar. That means it owns the migrant worker program. Hopefully, the attention generated by the corruption scandal will spill over to the cruelty FIFA's alleged corruption enabled.