Football at the Crossroads: Is a Boycott of Qatar 2022 Needed?

Image Credit: Timo Al-Farooq

Against the backdrop of reprehensible human rights violations and exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar, Cahal McAuley gives a summary of the current standing around the world on the boycott option as a means of protesting the country’s hosting of one of the largest sporting events in the world.

The dust has now settled on the first round of qualifying fixtures on the road to the 2022 Qatar World Cup, but as well as the commencement of preparations for the competition on the pitch, tentative protests have begun against the tournament due to take place in the small Gulf state next winter.

Countries such as Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands have donned t-shirts in protest of human rights abuses through the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar but are these gestures enough amid rising calls for a boycott of one of the world’s biggest sporting events?

Scrutiny surrounding FIFA and the Qatari government’s handling of the situation has increased dramatically since a recent Guardian article revealed that over 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since the country was awarded hosting rights in 2010. The total number of migrant deaths is significantly higher as it does not include workers from countries such as the Philippines and Kenya, who also supply a large number of labourers for the Qatari workforce.

The Qatari government has claimed that the number of deaths is proportional to the size of the migrant workforce in the country but the lack of transparency and frequency of ‘natural causes’ as a reason for death amongst a young workforce has drawn fierce criticism from human rights groups and trade union confederations. 80% of the deaths of Indian workers were classed as ‘natural’ leaving thousands of families seeking answers as to why their healthy fathers, husbands, and sons had suddenly died.

The increased attention being given to the plight of migrant workers has prompted Norway to lead the protest against the tournament with Eliteserien club Tromsø IL being the first to call for an all-out boycott of the competition.

The German and Dutch national teams joined the Norwegians in wearing t-shirts with slogans such as ‘football supports change’, a good starting gesture but unlikely to prompt any serious result if not backed up by further action.

The German and Dutch FAs have both stated that they are not in favour of a boycott as they believe their presence in Qatar next winter will help put a spotlight on the situation of workers and prompt reform more effectively than a boycott could. There are merits to this argument, but it seems rather like taking the easy way out as federations are seen to be conscious of the abuses occurring in Qatar without having to take any significant measures themselves.

With the tournament less than two years away, pressure is naturally building on FIFA and Qatar to take action to protect workers, but this comes after a decade of human rights violations and dire working conditions in preparation for the World Cup.

For most of its recent construction boom Qatar has enforced the kafala system, a sponsorship system used to monitor migrant workers, leaving their employers as their sponsors, and in charge of their legal and visa status.

The system allowed for the easy exploitation of workers by their employers as migrants couldn’t change jobs or leave the country without permission in a system not dissimilar to the indentured servitude employed in early British colonies. The system has been called modern- day slavery as workers unfamiliar with the language and customs of Qatar became easy prey for exploitative and abusive employers.

Qatar abolished the kafala system in name in December 2016, however, the exit permits and limitations on workers’ ability to change jobs remained, and the previously prohibited but widespread practice of confiscating workers’ passports was made legal by a new loophole meaning that the reforms potentially worsened the situation of workers in the country instead of improving it.

The absolute failure of Qatar in protecting its migrant labourers, who make up nearly 94% of the country’s workforce, was outlined in the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2018 global rights index, which placed the country in rating five: ‘No guarantee of rights’.

It seems unfathomable that FIFA could award their biggest tournament to a nation with such glaring disregard for human rights and labour practices, but after a decade of relative apathy, the football community at last seems to be waking up to the important issues at hand.

As international interest in Qatar continued to increase, the country finally enacted significant reform in January 2020, scrapping the exit visa requirement and allowing workers to change jobs without their employer’s permission. The reforms also instituted a minimum wage from 2021 and increased the penalties imposed on employers who withhold wages.

These changes give some credibility to the German and Dutch FA’s argument that the publicity of the World Cup can bring positive change to Qatar, but strategy for improving the lot of labourers in the world’s most exploitative countries shouldn’t involve rewarding these nations with one of sport’s most lucrative events. While such potentially transformative laws are encouraging, their impact will only be as significant as the will to enforce them and they come after many years of profiting from exploited workers.

The new laws were reflected in the ITUC’s 2020 global rights index which placed Qatar one rating better off than they had been in 2018, but the fact that their moving into rating four: ‘systematic violations of rights’ was considered an improvement puts the entire situation into perspective.

The recent surge in protests against the tournament has prompted criticisms of the international calls for a boycott with many highlighting the absence of similar outrage in matters relating to Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, owned by royalty from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar respectively, or the awarding of the World Cup to Russia and the United States, countries with less than perfect human rights records themselves.

These arguments are valid, but the line has to be drawn somewhere and, in an era where footballers are increasingly using their platform to draw attention to social and political issues, such opposition to human rights violations are to be expected and welcomed.

German international Joshua Kimmich has said that calls for a boycott are ten years too late, he is right of course but a defeatist attitude such as this will do little to help those in Qatar or prompt change in how FIFA awards future iterations of the tournament. Former World Cup winner Toni Kroos has openly criticised the holding of the tournament in Qatar and tried to draw attention to some of the abuses against workers in the country, a very significant statement for such a high- profile player to make, however, it seems unfair for players to be the ones coming under the most pressure to call for change.

The World Cup is a stage that few players ever reach, and for those that do make it to a tournament, it is usually a once in a lifetime experience. Players did not vote for the World Cup to be held in Qatar in 2010 and to look at a team like high-flying Armenia and expect them to come out in opposition to what could be the pinnacle of their professional lives seems a huge sacrifice to ask.

Responsibility in taking on FIFA and Qatar should fall to international federations rather than players themselves and the best-case scenario would be the assurance of significant and sustained change without a boycott.

This, however, is looking increasingly like the only option to force action from FIFA as their silence on the matter remains deafening. New rules in the voting process for the World Cup host nation prohibit countries with poor human rights records from winning the chance to stage the competition but there is little reason to believe FIFA will change their approach unless they are held to account on Qatar now.

The Norwegian FA will host their AGM on 20 June where they could be the first country to vote for a boycott of Qatar 2022. Of course, no one wants to be the first federation to openly defy FIFA but if someone gets the ball rolling, countries will be more likely to follow suit.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has said that Qatar 2022 will be the most beautiful World Cup ever held, but its staging on the backs of thousands of dead migrant workers in an absolute monarchy where homosexuality remains illegal paints a very different image of the tournament that is fast approaching. As sport fans we all look forward to the World Cup every four years, but surely even the most iconic events can’t come at such a grave cost.