Death and Glory: Labour Rights and the Qatar World Cup 2022

Awarding Qatar the 2022 World Cup has been one of the most controversial decisions made by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the new World Cup host has been at the centre of attention for several reasons since winning the 2022 World Cup bid on 2nd December 2010 (Jackson 2010) with an absolute majority. On the one hand FIFA’s aim to introduce elite football to an entirely new region might be a cause for celebration; on the other hand it is becoming increasingly clear that the activities of both soccer’s governing body and the host nation are entangled by some questionable proceedings, to say the least.  FIFA has been accused of corruption and bribery for awarding the tournament to Qatar, while football fans are concerned by issues like the extreme heat in the country or the ban on drinking beer at games and the rights of homosexual fans in Qatari stadiums. Meanwhile human rights organizations are trying to draw attention to some even more serious issues lingering beneath the surface of the glamour of one of the richest countries in the world – most likely remaining invisible to visitors travelling to Qatar for either business or touristic purposes. From what it looks like now Qatar is prepared to march to glory as World Cup host through the death of several migrant workers building high-tech infrastructure for the event, and the fundamentally discriminative labour laws in the country provide a satisfying legal framework for that. In this paper I will examine the layers of injustice inherent in Qatari labour law and identify some stakeholders who might have the power to change the course of events.

Qatar is a high-income country ranking third in the world only behind Luxembourg and Norway in terms of GDP per capita (Gonzalez 2008: 38) with an industry heavily relying on oil and gas. These natural resources constitute 60 percent of the country’s GDP, 85 percent of export earnings and 70 percent of government revenues (2008: 36). The discovery of oil in the region in 1939 2008: 36) saw Qatari economy and society go through a dramatic transformation, especially since oil exploitation reached the commercial scale in 1949. Oil turned Qatar into one of the wealthiest nations in the world within a few decades – and a few unexpected consequences derive from the newly achieved high living standards. Qatar is a good example of how prosperity can be a burden, as it is considered the unhealthiest nation according to international measures due to the increasing amount of fast-food consumption and inactive lifestyle. Statistics indicate that 71% of Qatari nationals are ‘overweight’ and 32% are considered ‘obese’ or ‘morbidly obese’ while 20% of nationals are also suffering from diabetes (Brannagan and Giulialotti 2014: 12). Meanwhile Qataris made up only 12 percent of the economically active population seven years ago (Gonzalez 2008: 47) and this figure is well below 10 percent by now. The expansion of infrastructural developments in the country is supported by the influx of non-national workers – resulting in a labour market relying largely on migrant workforce. This heavy reliance on non-nationals also implies that labour rights issues in Qatar stem from the fundamentally different treatment of Qatari citizens and migrant workers.

The Qatari Labour Law (Law No. 14 of 2004) regulates the lives of migrant workers from the moment they sign their contract until they receive their exit visa granting them permission to leave the country (Crocombe 2014: 54). To do this the kafala system is used as a special legal framework governing labour rights. On the surface it is a sponsorship agreement between the employer and employee, but in reality it is a contract that only binds migrant workers, while basically legitimizing slave labour within the Qatari legal system. Employing expatriate workers is simply the most cost-effective solution for Qatar, not only because Qataris expect to be paid more,[1]  but because all migrant workers have to sign a contract forbidding them to quit their job or leave the country without the explicit consent of their employers (Gonzalez 2008: 52). These regulations leave a large population of dominantly low-skilled expatriate labour force essential for large-scale infrastructural developments in a defenceless position. In addition, most of the migrant workers are employed through recruiting agencies, charging a fee for their role as mediators amounting up to $1000 (Erfani 2015: 628), meaning that most migrant workers arrive in the country already deeply indebted and will have to work for several months before being able to pay back these initial fees – provided they actually get their salary.

In September 2013 The Guardian published a report (Pattisson 2013) stating that since the beginning of the construction works on the future World Cup sites an average of one Nepalese worker has died every day and if the works continued in the same manner this would result in the death of 4,000 Nepalese workers before the beginning of the event. Amnesty International has also called on FIFA to take responsibility and address the issue of migrant workers in Qatar (Bakr 2014), so far to no avail. There are currently 250,000 Nepalese workers in Qatar and an additional one million migrant workers (Crocombe 2014: 41) are expected to arrive in the country to complete infrastructural developments for the 2022 World Cup.

According to Qatari laws contracts and other legal documents are only accessible in Arabic (2014: 43), while applying for a residency permit also implies that employers keep the passports of their employees, who are not allowed to leave the state without their permission. This means that migrant workers not only know virtually nothing about the terms of their contracts and their future working conditions, but not being able to either quit their job or leave the country they are also forced to stay put and keep working regardless of health risks. After finally securing a contract these migrant workers are then responsible for their own safety at the workplace (2014: 44), so they cannot expect compensation for worksite injuries and they are even encouraged to keep quiet about workplace fatalities – which are monitored by a startlingly low number of only 150 work inspectors (2014: 45) for the whole country. When discussing working conditions, it is also important to mention that all reports verify most workers dying not of worksite related accidents, but – despite their young age – of cardiac arrest (2014: 45) due to long working hours, extreme heat and inhumane working conditions.

The life of Nepalese migrant workers in segregated labour camps on the outskirts of Doha (Crocombe 2014: 39) thus demonstrates a sharp contrast to the high-tech, air-conditioned stadiums they are building. Migrant workers live in unsanitary conditions without air-conditioning, proper meals, water or electricity supply. Their housing units are situated far from the city centre of Doha so most Qatari citizens have no knowledge of their existence on the geographical and social periphery of a state that aims to become a central power among global forces. Regardless of public awareness to these issues Qataris are the beneficiaries of a system of exploitation based on the unequal distribution of rights in their country. It is estimated that an overwhelming 90% of Qatari citizens would vote against the abolishment or even the weakening of the kafala system (Erfani 2015: 636). And even though the majority of migrant construction workers might be hidden from the eyes of Qatari nationals, the average Qatari citizen does enjoy the direct benefits of labour rules applying double standards as a legal framework. For instance, 95 percent of Qatari families employ at least one housemaid, while 50 percent of them two or more (Erfani 2015: 636). Based on all of these factors it is safe to say that the kafala system is not only “meant to enhance Qatari lives” but it also serves as “a legal framework that enables slave-like working conditions” (Erfani 2015: 637).

It is also not hard to argue that the kafala system can be considered a blatant violation of international labour law. Qatar is a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO) which is a specialized agent of the UN established in 1946 to act as a supervisory system monitoring the implementation of conventions ratified by governments regarding issues like minimum wage, the limitation of working hours, collective bargaining rights, the protection of migrant workers and the abolition of forced labour (Erfani 2015: 639). Qatar has ratified several ILO conventions since joining the organization in 1976 and even though there are 71 conventions not ratified by the country, the biggest cause for concern as Erfani (2015: 639) argues is that Qatar has not incorporated these principles into its legislative mandates. Implicitly there are some notable ILO conventions among the ones Qatar has not ratified, like the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining and the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (Crocombe 2014: 52) which means that the Qatari labour system fundamentally lacks all forms of unionism and basically no form of protection exists against anti-union discrimination of migrant workers. Once again, as Crocombe (2014: 56) emphasizes the dichotomy of the Labour Law in Qatar determines the unequal treatment of migrant workers, as only Qatari citizens have the right to collective bargaining, unions and strikes.

In light of all this FIFA’s approach to human rights issues throughout the bidding process and ever since the results have been announced has been somewhat cynical. Both the winning bid by Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022 was surrounded by accusations of corruption but so far the football federation has only revealed a few cases like that of Mohammed bin Hammam, a Qatari member of FIFA’s Executive Committee who received a lifetime ban for bribery[2] (Erfani 2015: 651) and the president of the federation, Sepp Blatter has been reluctant to resign despite being the central figure of the scandal erupting around his organization. This reluctance on the one hand clearly suggests a denial of any responsibility; on the other hand it also might imply that there are more scandals to come from the inner circles of FIFA which Blatter is trying to smother up by desperately clinging on to his presidency. It is now official that the 2022 World Cup will be held in the winter in Qatar (Evans 2015) but this decision provides very little help for migrant workers preparing the infrastructure for the event in the upcoming seven years – no doubt also working throughout the summer. FIFA’s decision once again serves the interest of those who will be travelling to Qatar as players or spectators – those who will also be spending most of their time during their visit in air-conditioned stadiums, hotels, shopping malls, metros and buses.

Judging by the fundamentally rotten foundations of FIFA Sepp Blatter’s optimism regarding the World Cup as an opportunity for social change (Erfani 2015:629) might actually be a cause for alarm. FIFA is a deeply corrupt organization that can only be dealt with in John Oliver style satire but the lives of migrant workers in Qatar is definitely no joke. This is also not to say that FIFA cannot be held accountable for labour rights issues that are surrounding the Qatar World Cup bid after awarding the tournament to them, but it is hard to expect appropriate measures to be taken by an organization with such staggering moral standards. The latest news coming from FIFA is that Blatter was somehow finally forced to resign, but the organization will be busy with clearing its name and reconstituting itself – something that is highly unlikely to happen in the near future. In the past FIFA has demonstrated that they are actually capable of initiating enforcement mechanisms that might have the power to change working conditions in industries closely tied to football, for instance, they have collaborated with the international Labour Organization (ILO) to fight against the exploitation of child labour in the manufacturing of footballs (Erfani 2015: 63). However, in the current situation expecting such bargaining power demonstrated previously by FIFA might also prove to be an illusion.

By hosting the World Cup Qatar wants to “shine in its cutting edge modernity” (Erfani 2015:624) but in this respect the exploitation of labour force in its currently known form of slavery is in itself a quintessentially modern phenomenon. Soft power resources are characterised by the dominance of culture, ideology and by credible and innovative institutions and policies (Nye 2008) and in this sense hosting a World Cup is clearly the expression of soft empowerment for Qatar.[3] But this is also where the power play between soft power and hard power comes in: regarding labour rights issues the fundamental question is whether Qatar is more interested in its good reputation or profit maximization. Death and glory – to rephrase a famous line by the Clash – might be just another story for Qatar but it is not the singular responsibility of an oppressive national regime or a corrupt football federation supporting it. What is most urgently needed is to tackle labour rights issues and to extend the circle of responsibility on behalf of those involved in the process. Abuses are escalating in Qatar while multinational firms and big-name developers are distancing themselves by using minimally regulated subcontractors (Chen 2013). All companies contracting in Qatar should demonstrate corporate social responsibility and make it clear that they will enforce a zero tolerance policy on forced labour and human trafficking instead of kicking away responsibility by hiring subcontractors to do the dirty work for them.

To extend the circle of responsibility and accountability even further Zaha Hadid suing the New York Review of Books for defamation, claiming that architects “have nothing to do with the workers” (Walters 2014) demonstrates how the multiple layers of kicking away responsibility by various actors works in practice. As architecture cannot be characterised by the Kantian disinterestedness of aesthetic pleasure architects do actually have a social responsibility regarding what they design and how those designs are implemented. It also seems overly optimistic to argue like Crocombe (2014) that the World Cup in Qatar can trigger an in depth reform of labour rights in the country. The Qatari labour rights system provides unprecedented privileges for Qatari citizens, precisely through the exploitation of migrant labour force and it seems unrealistic to expect the citizens of the richest country in the world to simply give up on these privileges for the sake of humanitarian reasons. Qatar will only initiate changes in its labour system if its world leading economic position is threatened and this is where the global responsibility of all companies and individuals contracting to build Qatari investments comes in. Labour rights violations in Qatar are not locally isolated problems but are largely determined by global politics and economic interest. Qatar is a glocal actor with a glocal consciousness (Brannagan and Giulianotti 2014:2) but soft disempowerment can only shatter Qater if it is clear to all actors that labour rights issues in the country cannot be dealt with removed from their global context.




Bakr, Amena. 2014. “Amnesty Calls on FIFA to Address Qatar Worker’s Rights” Reuters March 19. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Bond, David. 2014. “Qatar World Cup ‘£3 million Payments to Officials’ Corruption Claim” BBC Sport May 31. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Brannagan, Paul Michael and Richard Giulianotti. 2014. “Soft Power and Soft Disempowerment: Qatar, Global Sport and Football’s 2022 World Cup Finals” Leisure Studies DOI: 10.1080/02614367.2014.964291

Chen, Michelle. 2013. “Qatar Launches into 2022 World Cup on Backs of Abused Migrants” In These Times January 24. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Crocombe, Nigel G. 2014. “Building a New Future: the 2022 FIFA World Cup as a Potential Catalyst for Labor Reform in Qatar” Suffolk Transnational Law Review 37(33): 34-66.

Erfani, Azadeh. 2015. “Kicking Away Responsibility: FIFA’s Role in Response to Migrant Worker Abuses in Qatar’s 2022 World Cup” Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal 22: 623-662.

Evans, Simon. 2015. “FIFA Sets Winter Dates for Qatar World Cup” Reuters September 25, Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Gonzalez, Gabriella C., Lynn A. Karoly, Louay Constant, Hanine Salem, Charles A. Goldman. 2008. Facing Human Capital Challenges of the 21st Century. Education and Labor Market Initiatives in Lebann, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Rand-Qatar Policy Institute.

Jackson, Jamie. 2010. “Qatar Wins 2022 World Cup Bid” The Guardian December 2. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Jamieson, Dave. 2014. “Migrant Workers in World Cup Host Qatar ‘Enslaved,’ Living in Squalor: Report” The Huffington Post March 21. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Nye, Joseph S. 2008. “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616: 94-109.

Pattisson, Pete. 2013. “Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘Slaves’” The Guardian September 25. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Ugochukwu, Basil. 2015. “Beyond Corruption: Qatar Migrant Workers and Issues in FIFA’s Value Chain” CIGI Online July 21. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

Walters, Joanna. 2014. “Zaha Hadid Suing New York Review of Books over Qatar Criticism” The Guardian August 25. Retrieved October 14, 2015 (

[1] Just for comparison: those Qatari citizens working in the government sector get greater total compensation, have more job security, earn more prestige and have shorter working hours even compared to Qatari nationals in the non-government sector (Gonzales 2008:52). Juxtaposing five hour working days and six weeks of holiday each year with slave labour and the complete lack of benefits for migrant workers highlights the power play of exploitation and disempowerment based on citizenship.

[2] It is is also ironic that the recipient of this lifetime ban was actually prohibited from all football-related activities because he bought votes to secure a win for Qatar in the World Cup bid (Bond 2014). The logical consequence of awarding a tournament to a country after corrupted voting would be to revisit the bidding process, but nothing like this is happening in FIFA’s absurd universe.

[3] Hosting very few of such mega-events proved to be profitable in the past, for instance, hosting the Olympic Games usually leaves behind deeply indebted nations and decaying architectural developments.

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