FIFA President Gianni Infantino has dismissed various emerging reports about the exploitation of migrant laborers who have built stadiums in Qatar for the ongoing World Cup. The details of some of these reports reveal that this issue cannot be dismissed so easily and requires a more humane and critical scrutiny.

When Qatar was awarded the bid to host the 2022 World Cup back in 2010, it only had one football ground for organizing international matches. Its government started on a large-scale, unprecedented project of building seven more football stadiums within the span of just 12 years. 

Many of the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have a history of attracting migrant workers— especially from South Asia and Africa for their developmental projects— and Qatar followed suit, luring in a number of laborers from countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya. Reports of the exploitation of migrant laborers started emerging as far back as 2013. Over time, the controversy continued to loom large around the world cup preparations in Qatar as more media outlets started investigating this issue. 

While growing up in Pakistan, I heard stories about tough working conditions in the Middle East; the painful, scorching heat, the back-breaking, grinding, intensive labor, the ruthless Arab Kafeels who would not consider you an equal human being. “Study hard, get good grades for a good job, lest you will also end up laboring in the Middle East”— that is how we would be motivated. 

I, therefore, found it unsurprising to hear the horrific emerging stories about how migrant laborers who built these football stadiums in Qatar were exploited and abused. But since FIFA and the whole Western football fraternity involved with the World Cup take human rights “seriously,” these stories could not remain unaddressed for long.

How could morally and politically correct, conscientious people of FIFA and the West enjoy a World Cup reportedly built upon the cries, sweat, blood of laborers? Well, a day before the official inauguration of the World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino finally took on the responsibility and organized a press conference to assuage us of this guilt, so that we can enjoy the world cup peacefully. 

Infantino started by labeling the media reports as created by Western media to give moral lessons to Eastern countries. “For what we Europeans have been doing around the world in the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.” 

Continuing to scold a supposed Western audience, Infantino lauded Qatar’s efforts to welcome migrant laborers and provide them better economic opportunities, in a time period when Europe has closed its borders for them. 

He also called the criticisms of labor conditions one-sided, reactive and provocative. Not bowing down to such pressures, Infantino proudly presented FIFA’s belief in resolving such issues through a mutual engagement. Giving more details about this “right” form of engagement they have adopted, Infantino highlighted how FIFA has worked together with the Qatari government to introduce reforms in the labor laws, build a permanent ILO office to address the complaints of migrant workers and introduce funds to compensate them for work injuries and unpaid wages. 

He ended by emphasizing how the World Cup in Qatar is aimed to bring people from West and East together, to interact and understand each other better. Instead of criticizing this decision of holding the world cup in the Middle East, he asked his audience to celebrate it.

Workers walk toward the construction site of Lusail stadium, which is being built for the 2022 men's soccer World Cup, during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 20, 2019. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters (credits: NBC news)

While Infantino’s press conference does highlight some appreciative efforts undertaken by FIFA and the Qatari government, it also wholly undermines the gravity of the issue. When we look into the details of these reports, dismissed by Infantino as Eurocentric, one sided, provocative, besmirching the beauty of an event which is bringing the world together, we instead hear heart wrenching stories of the conditions migrant laborers were forced to work under. 

Equidem, a global human and labor rights organization, prepared one of the most comprehensive investigations about this issue. From September 2020 to October 2022, Equidem reached out to more than 982 migrant laborers who worked on building eight FIFA world cup stadiums in Qatar. (The largest of these stadiums, the venue for the final of the world cup, Lusail Stadium has a capacity of almost 89,000 attendants).

8 stadiums of Qatar holding the ongoing world cup matches (Credits: timeoutdubai)

The fear of retaliation kept the majority of workers from participating in the investigation and only 60 workers agreed to have their experiences recorded. The findings are harrowing.

The labourers talked about understaffing and overworking, nationality based discrimination, wage theft, illegal recruitment fees, physical and verbal abuse, inability to change employers, injuries including deaths at work site and the fear of retaliation on reporting any violations of their rights. 

While Infantino has a lot of faith in the different laws, reforms, and structures Qatar has been introducing since 2016 to ensure the rights of laborers, these recorded testimonies indicate gaping loopholes in their operationalization. Laborers continued to be exploited and abused long after these reforms and structures were first introduced. 

Such gaps between announcements and actual implementations present a more grim, less rosy, less hopeful situation on ground than Infantino would have us believe. It also casts doubt on Infantino’s promises of reparating the migrant workers in the future after the World Cup is over.  

Talking to Human Rights Watch (HRW) panel about how these laws and structures have failed to protect the rights of the workers so far, journalist Yasin Kakande, who has covered the issue of migrant laborers in the Middle East extensively, showed a picture of migrant laborers taking a midday rest in an open field in Doha. Midday rest was one of the reforms Qatar introduced recently; but without any sheltered, air conditioned accommodations for workers to take rest in, this reform was not very effective in protecting them from scorching heat.

In his urge to rectify and repatriate mistakes the Qatari government has made in the past, Infantino also conveniently overlooked what is too valuable and precious to be repatriable— the human life itself. According to Shariful Hassan, another participant of HRW panel, more than 1300 Bangladeshi migrant workers died in Qatar in the last 14 years. The Guardian reported the death of one Nepalese worker each day during the summers of 2013. Another investigation of the newspaper in 2021 reported the deaths of 6500 South Asian migrants in Qatar since 2010. 

Turning a deaf ear to this rampant rise in the death of migrant workers, the government of Qatar failed to investigate and mitigate their causes, labeling them, instead, as natural deaths. “How could a young, healthy man of 25, 26 die with a heart attack or brain hemorrhage? Most of the family members never believed this,” Hassan told the HRW panel.

“I sit and cry on my own. Whom can I show my tears to? “Now everything is shattered;” Life itself has become like a broken mirror;” “Our mother is still crying for her son;” these are some of the testimonies of the surviving mothers and wives collected by HRW and Amnesty international.

Nanda Kali Nepali, whose husband died working in Qatar (Screenshot source: HRW)

All of these reports and investigations collected by Equidem, HRW, Amnesty international and others are the dreadful stories of human cruelty and pain. These stories are not an avenue for Infantino to become a champion of the East and shame the West, to praise Qatar for finally waking up from its atrocious labor practices of the past and its collaboration with FIFA in bringing the world together. 

Instead, these stories require humane acknowledgement and mourning for those who suffered and a strict accountability of those who were involved. Despite Infantino’s efforts, this World Cup will remain stained with the cries and bloods of thousands of migrant laborers. 

Qatar and FIFA cannot be absolved so easily of the crimes they have committed. 

About the author

Hammad Abdullah

Hamad came from Pakistan to Canada as an international student and recently completed his masters in history from UBC. He is interested in issues related to South Asian cultures, histories, and colonialism. When not reading and writing (or thinking about reading and writing), he can be seen playing cricket.

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