Amnesty International’s recent report on the mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar – home of the 2022 FIFA World Cup – is the latest example of the mistreatment of labour at the sites of major global sporting events. Both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, stung by stories of abuse at the Sochi Winter Olympics, should be taking strong and credible stands against this practice.
In Qatar, one of the world’s wealthiest and fastest-growing countries, labourers from South Asia and Southeast Asia are building a new airport, a subway system, new roads and other infrastructure. Soon, they will start to build the stadiums and other venues for the World Cup. According to Amnesty International, the mistreatment of migrant workers is “routine and widespread.”
The workers cannot leave a job, or even the country, without their employers’ written permission. They are excluded from the protections in Qatar’s labour laws. They live in substandard housing, work in dangerous conditions and, most damning at all, are sometimes not even paid. Similar problems have been documented by Human Rights Watch and media outlets in Russia, where some workers are apparently going unpaid at the Olympics site in Sochi.
Migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse, especially in countries where the rule of law is weak or non-existent. They fear being arrested, having their passports or visas seized, and being deported. They don’t often speak up; in both Sochi and Qatar, migrants who went months without getting paid stayed silent and kept working, in the hopes their promised payday would finally come. Some went home without collecting a cent.
To date, the IOC’s response to the abuse in Sochi has been lacklustre. One IOC official brushed it off by saying only a small percentage of the labourers there are being mistreated. Would the IOC dismiss cheating on the grounds only a small percentage of athletes were doing it? Though it may be too late for Sochi, the IOC can still demand assurances against the maltreatment of the workers in future. So can FIFA. Both organizations can make a difference by demanding that their host cities work to the highest labour and human rights standards. Instead, they’re ignoring what looks like slave labour.