The Horrific Cost of Qatar’s World Cup Bid

The recent $150 million scandal involving several senior FIFA officials has once again brought to light the international soccer body’s renowned culture of corruption and malfeasance (indeed, the tepid response among most soccer fans towards this revelation speaks volumes about what little regard there is towards the institution that governs the world’s largest sport).

But the more disturbing and sobering evidence of FIFA’s utter lack of human decency, at least as of late, can be best seen in the following chart, courtesy of the Washington Post:

At over 900, these over represent the estimated number of workers known to have died while constructing Qatar’s infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup; another report by the International Trade Union Confederation put the number even higher, at 1,200, while the article cites an investigation by the Guardian last year that found Nepalese migrant workers were dying at a rate of one every two days. This expendable labor force is made up overwhelmingly of poor migrants, namely from South Asia, who have a history of being abused and exploited in the rich Gulf state (as in its fast-growing neighbors).

Such a dismal human rights record is precisely why the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar was so fraught with controversy from the start — and the allegations of bribery certainly did not help. With its infamously punishing summer heat and utter lack of a soccer culture, it made little practical sense to give the tiny country hosting privileges. But the long-established and well-documented instances of worker abuse should have been enough disincentive, not that FIFA (and for that matter other sporting bodies like the International Olympic Committee) have a track record of caring.

It is little wonder that Russia, which will be hosting the 2018 World Cup, and which has human rights problems of its own, is not looking upon this recent FIFA bust favorably.

It is hard to say what impact this recent scandal will have on an institution where corruption seems firmly interwoven. It is even more difficult to imagine that things will change in Qatar, both regards to the World Cup and its general treatment of migrant labor. Quoting the WaPo piece once more:

Qatar officials have previously pledged to address worker safety concerns.  “We believe that the people helping us build our country deserve to be fairly paid, humanely treated and protected against exploitation”, the country’s labor ministry told the Guardian. “That is why we are reforming our labour laws and practices”.

Still, it’s clear that Qatar is in a league of its own when it comes to poor worker safety. Conditions for migrant workers there are so bad that the International Trade Union Confederation has called the state “a country without a conscience.” Many of the abuses of migrant workers in Qatar and other Gulf countries are related to a governing system called “kafala,” which dictates how migrant workers may enter the country. The system has been criticized for essentially placing workers under the complete control of their employers and leaving the door wide open for exploitation and abuse.

In the light of the new Justice Department investigation, Swiss authorities are announcing a new inquiry into the process that gave Qatar the cup in 2010. But as the families of 1,200 dead workers can attest, in many ways the damage has already been done. If FIFA board members did indeed accept bribes from Qatar to let it host the 2022 cup, it would show how backroom corruption can have widespread and fatal consequences.

FIFA is hardly the only human organization where venality and callousness have cost lives. Even the world’s most popular sport is non immune to being tainted by wanton cruelty and disconcern for human life (especially the poorest and most marginalized).

EDIT: Though I had set the matter aside given it was not my focus, I agree with those who have pointed out the U.S. Justice Department’s double-standard in prosecuting FIFA officials a continent away — however valid the grounds — while ignoring the many criminal liable bankers, financiers, and others that played a role in the recession-causing financial crisis back in 2007. But that is a whole other topic for another day.

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