In 2022, football should stay at home

When politicians make ill-judged “I love Britain because…” speeches, “stringent health and safety regulation” rarely makes the final cut. But a glance at Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup demonstrates what happens in their absence.

Whilst not a single person died in construction of facilities for the 2012 London Olympic Games, there has been a depressingly steady stream of reports chronicling the deaths of migrant workers on Qatari construction sites. ‘500 Indian workers killed since 2012’ (Guardian, February 18th). ‘400 Nepalese construction workers killed’ (The Observer February 15th). ‘The Qatar World Cup could kill 4000 people before it begins’ (International Trade Union Report, 25th March). On conservative estimates, for every player taking to the field, there will be several migrant labourers who died trying to deliver the event.

Even if there were not a single further death between the second you read this and the kick-off the first game, however, it would still be a disgusting indictment of international attitudes to human life that such an event is allowed to take place in a country with such reprehensible labour practices.

Migrant labourers, often from rural areas of Nepal and India, have been primary responsible for the construction project.  Wooed by promises of wages exceeding anything they could get at home, what these people face in Qatar is rather different than the picture of quick and easy money painted by recruitment agents.

Not only are wages often significantly less generous than promised, workers face a form of bonded labour under which their visas are dependent upon their employer, making it all but impossible to leave the country or quit their job. Living conditions are appalling, unhealthy and overcrowded.  There have meanwhile been consistent reports of violent, physical and on occasion deadly abuse of workers on sites.

It has taken some excellent investigative journalism to bring these abuses to light, and I fully recommend anyone read the stories linked to above. They describe much more vividly and in more detail than I could the shameful project currently under way in the name of sport in Qatar.

The barest facts and figures, however, should be more than enough to make one thing clear: no country with any fundamental concern for human dignity should have any part in the 2022 World Cup whilst it is scheduled to take place in Qatar.

When Qatari officials have attempted to defend the indefensible, they usually offer the suggestion that, with their small natural population, cheap migrant labour is the only way they can deliver these grand projects. It is difficult to comprehend why the world’s reaction has been a reluctant shrug of agreement rather the more logical ‘then don’t try to deliver these decadent vanities entirely unsuitable to your economy.’

There has though been a remarkable level of discussion concerning Qatar’s suitability to host a World Cup. It just hasn’t been about anything remotely as important as corporate manslaughter, bonded labour and endemic human rights violations. Rather it is the climate, the effect upon European football seasons, corruption in the bidding process and of course the availability of alcohol which the great and good of the football community have used as stick to beat Qatar’s World Cup aspirations.

The public mood of resignation is perhaps explicable through recent history. In preparing for the 2008 Olympics China made highly questionable use migrant labourers. South Africa’s 2010 World Cup construction project involved demolishing slums against the wishes of their inhabitants. Brazil’s 2014 World Cup preparations have led to riots. Exploitation of the poor has become the norm in putting on 21st century showcase sporting events.

Just because nothing has been done, however, does not mean nothing can be done. The much maligned “soft power” of the West is alive and well on the football pitch. If EU nations agreed to boycott the World Cup, it could not credibly take place. Asides from a few South American nations, Europe provides the best teams, the star names, most of the travelling fans and, on more occasions than not, the eventual winners (only three non-European teams have won the competition). Financially, politically and in terms of prestige, a World Cup without the European teams would be a disaster.

The time to push for a boycott is now. Qualifying is yet to start and there is plenty of time to arrange an alternative host nation. Also, unlike most boycotts, it would not solely be diplomatic finger wagging, it would save lives.  Construction would be scaled back and one would hope Qatari firms would be forced into treating migrant workers with a touch more respect by the prospect of retreating foreign capital.

The UK will never again be a significant global power on the basis of its military or economic strength. If the position of Foreign Secretary is to avoid becoming entirely ceremonial, however, these are precisely the sort of issues on which this nation can take a lead. England is proud of its claim to have invented football; it should not let the game be sullied by association with mass corporate manslaughter and a sickening disregard for human life.

3 responses to “In 2022, football should stay at home”

  1. Christopher McMahon says:

    Great article that highlights a very important issue. Hopefully the boycott movement will grow in strength and, as you said, save lives.

  2. Oliver O'Hanlon says:

    I dont think that many people have a problem with global sporting events going to developing countries, as its a good incentive for them to develop much needed infrastructure, but there needs to be more careful selection of countries to host world cups and olympic games to make sure that workers are not being exploited or worse, killed. that is the responsibility of FIFA, the IOC and others, but sadly money is power and when qatar can shove huge wads of cash into FIFAs hands, human rights are forgotten

  3. Stefan says:

    One interesting thing is although we are used to referring to Qatar as a developing country, and it is literally developing economically at an incredible rate, its citizens actually already have one of the highest average incomes in the world. 14% of Qatar’s citizens are dollar millionaires. Of course it only has around 200K citizens. The rest of the 2million or so population is pretty much migrant workers. Qatar is free to be as ambitious as it likes of course but it is pretty clear its current ambitions can not be delivered without terrible levels of exploitation.

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