This post has been contributed by Elin Nilsson, a HDR candidate with the Griffith Law School and a member of the Law Futures Centre.

In less than a year, the small Gulf State Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup in soccer. Qatar has spent the last decade preparing to host the Cup, building state-of-the-art stadiums, luxury hotels and restaurants. The FIFA World Cup in soccer is played every four years, and each time, a different nation is elected to host the Cup. The World Cup is one of the largest sporting events in the world and attracts millions of fans travelling from all over the world to support their national teams.

In December 2010, the World Football Association, FIFA, selected Qatar to host the World Cup in soccer 2022. This was the first time a World Cup was to be hosted in the middle east, and the unlikely choice came as a surprise for many. The lack of interest in the sport and the scorching weather made the world question the selection of the host nation. Even so, Qatar made a compelling case by being the wealthiest country in the world per capita, insisting that wealth knows no bounds in what it wants to achieve. FIFA was subsequently accused of promoting “sportswashing”. The criticism concerned Qatar’s disregard for human rights and the concern that hosting the World Cup was an opportunity for them to launder their reputation through sports; a phenomenon called sportswashing.

When Qatar won the 2022 World Cup bid, the British press was quick to make claims of corruption. However, after intensive inquiries by both FIFA’s ethics committee and the FBI, Qatar was cleared of any wrongdoing in winning its bid. Despite all controversies surrounding the choice of Qatar, Qatar is betting that the World Cup will showcase its push to become a tourism and business destination capable of taking on regional rival Dubai.

The Migrant Workers in Qatar

Apart from building eight new innovative stadiums in preparing for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has ‘transformed’ its country into a soccer paradise. Thanks to huge reserves of oil and natural gas, Qatar is remarkably rich and spared no expense in transforming the country by building new luxury hotels, restaurants, roads, and an entirely new metro system.

Behind the glittering city and the brand-new stadiums, there are labour camps filled with thousands of migrant workers. The world on the outskirts of the capital Doha, where the labour camps are located, is completely different to the one in the new and improved city of Doha. Reports of high recruitment fees, low wages, harsh working and living conditions, and even the deaths of workers have emerged in the last decade leading up to the event.

Qatar’s population is approximately 2.8 million people, but fewer than 10 per cent of those are Qatari. The rest are nearly all foreign workers from some of the poorest countries in the region, such as Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Kenya. The vast majority in Qatar are migrant workers living in inhumane labour camps and doing jobs under severe conditions and low wages, making them vulnerable to exploitation. These foreign workers have spent the last decade building the stadium and the hotels that will make the World Cup possible to achieve. Yet, most of them are not even allowed into the areas allocated for the World Cup.

The issue with the migrant workforce in Qatar is not only the harsh living conditions, but also the conditions in their contract. One of the lynchpins of the Qatari labour system is something called Kafala. Kafala, or the “sponsorship-system”, is a system whereby workers are tied to their employer. Workers are not allowed to change employers or even leave the country without the employer’s permission, which immediately leaves the workers vulnerable to abuse. The Kafala system has been the most criticised element of the workers’ conditions in Qatar. Another aspect highly criticised is the substantial recruitment fees the vast majority of the low wage workers pay to go to Qatar, placing them in heavy debt.

These harsh conditions to work in are not just exploitative but also deadly. The death toll from Qatar’s construction sites over the past decade has been staggering. Since 2010, over 6,500 migrant workers from Southeast Asia have died, which amounts to more than 12 workers a week since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. The workers’ deaths are both ‘sudden and unexplained’, with no access to an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

A change in Qatar?

A few years after Qatar won the right to host the World Cup, it began to face significant criticism by both human rights groups and the media for its treatment of migrant workers. As a result of this pressure, Qatar eventually teamed up with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to introduce new labour reforms. After two years of consultation, these new labour reforms were announced in 2017. The labour reforms consist of two parts; the first part concerned abolishing the Kafala system, and the second part involved introducing a minimum wage of AUD 349 a month for workers. The change to the sponsorship system came into effect in September 2020, and the minimum wage came into effect in March 2021. When put into perspective, these reforms seem modest at best. The minimum wage amounts to less than AUD $2 an hour in a country reportedly spending more than 500 million USD a week on World Cup construction.

Still, if properly implemented, they would make a significant change to the life of the workers in Qatar. The question is, however, whether there has been an improvement for workers since September 2020. According to the ILO, around 200,000 workers have changed jobs since the reforms were introduced, and around 280,000 workers have seen an increase in their wages up to the minimum level. Although this statistic sounds promising, these reforms came into effect more than a decade after the construction of the World Cup started, and most buildings and stadiums were finished at the end of 2020. Even though Qatar formed the World Cup organising committee four months after winning the bid to host the championship and their plans for their first stadium within the first three years, it took ten years to introduce any significant labour reforms.

While it might be too late to help the construction workers, there are still many migrant workers left in Qatar working in the various hotels and restaurants built for the World Cup. FIFA has begun to sell hospitality packages, promoting these hotels and restaurants employed by migrant workers. Recent reports disclose that the story of the troubles facing the construction workers is repeated in the hospitality sector. Many of the workers in these various hotels and restaurants receive low wages, work extremely long hours, pay substantial recruitment fees, and despite the law now allowing workers to change jobs, the employees do not allow it. Not all migrant workers are employed directly by the hotels, as many are employed by subcontractors. Nevertheless, not only the hotels bear the responsibility for these workers, but also FIFA in promoting the hotels for the World Cup.

Although all the eyes are on Qatar, extreme labour abuses still happen with less than a year to kick off. That raises the question of what will happen when the World Cup is over and no one is watching? This year will be crucial while the international community still have some leverage over Qatar. To improve the living and working condition of the migrant workers, Qatar needs to properly implement the existing labour reforms and ensure that workers are free to change jobs. Qatar also needs to consider the minimum wage and investigate the ‘sudden and unexplained’ deaths of migrant workers. Lastly, job recruitment fees should be paid by the employers and not by the workers. This coming year will reveal whether Qatar is serious about changing the condition of its labourers or whether Qatar is using sportswashing to clear its reputation.