Qatar’s ‘modern slavery’ makes the World Cup a complete disgrace

Qatar kicks off the 2022 FIFA World Cup against Ecuador early Sunday morning Pacific time. If the Qatari ruling class can resist the urge to create an international incident for a few weeks after that — a tall order, given that it’s already threatening journalists and banning beer — then its decadelong bet will pay off. A country the size of Connecticut with a depraved human rights record will have bribed and enslaved its way into its long-sought and totally unearned air of legitimacy.

The Qatar World Cup is the most destructive, most indefensible sporting event in modern history. Before a single game has even been played, this is already a travesty of unparalleled proportions. Every awful trend of the 21st century is converging at once. Take global warming, for instance: We’re witnessing either a preview of the worst-case scenario of our impending climate apocalypse or just … the climate apocalypse realized.

The original sin of this World Cup, though, is the pile of bodies the stadiums stand on. Death and displacement are tied directly to the construction business, especially prior to international sporting events. Dozens of workers have died in the lead-up to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, 2004 Athens Olympics, 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics. The 2014 Brazil World Cup forcibly displaced thousands. Big infrastructure projects in the US, including the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and the Rams’ SoFi Stadium, have also been the cause of worker deaths.

Qatar’s infrastructure projects do not exist on the same spectrum.

An estimated 2.9 million people live in Qatar. Only 380,000, or 13%, are Qatari citizens. Qatar’s citizenship is exceptionally wealthy, thanks to the country’s state-owned natural gas company and the rest of the world’s reliance on that natural gas. Qatar emits more carbon dioxide per capita than any other country on the planet.

Most everyone else in Qatar — the vast majority of the population — is desperately poor, forced to work, left to suffer. Many are South Asian migrant workers from Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. They come to Qatar in an attempt to make a little bit of money for their families back home, even though they know going in that the odds are stacked against them from the get-go. They often have to take out loans for exorbitant, illegal recruitment fees (bribes, really) just to pay their way to Qatar for work. If they die in Qatar, their families are burdened with their debt. Rolling Stone reported on one such case, in which a starving Nepalese widow named Manju Devi says she got on her hands and knees and begged loan sharks to forgive her family’s $10,000 debt after her husband died in Qatar of a heart attack, a common occurrence due to the excessive work in the excessive heat.

Qatar’s ruling class absolves itself of responsibility for the labor conditions of major infrastructure projects — including the construction of World Cup venues — by using contracting firms that, until a few years ago, were bound to essentially zero labor laws and no oversight. As a result, the laborers in Qatar are something closer to slaves or indentured servants. They have almost no rights and little recourse when they are mistreated. They’ve been ordered to work terrible hours, with breaks only enforced in the middle of the afternoon to prevent too much of the workforce from dying off due to the Middle East’s brutal heat. They sleep and eat in overcrowded worker colonies. They have reported being physically and verbally abused by unforgiving bosses. They’re fed terrible food. They’re encouraged to push through obvious injuries. They’re constantly victims of wage theft. They have a hellish time leaving Qatar of their own volition, because their passports are held hostage by contracting firms.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, center, takes in a game in Qatar in September.

KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

The exact body count of Qatar’s World Cup construction is hard to know. Qatar fudges the numbers by excluding heart attacks and other serious afflictions. (For example, the heart attack of Devi’s late husband was categorized by Qatar as “nonwork related,” which also meant no compensation for Devi’s family.) In 2021, the Guardian gave its best estimate of the carnage: 6,500 migrant deaths over 10 years , a number that the publication itself called a conservative undercount. Those deaths include individuals tasked with infrastructure projects that aren’t technically part of Qatar’s World Cup push, although it’s fair to link them together, since other projects may not have been greenlighted if there hadn’t been an impending influx of tourists to satiate. In 2014, Qatar’s government erupted at Deadspin for saying that the World Cup would kill more people than 9/11. Eight years later, it looks like at least two 9/11s, if not more.

In just five short sentences, the Guardian gave a devastating glimpse into some of the lives lost:

“Ghal Singh Rai from Nepal paid nearly £1,000 in recruitment fees for his job as a cleaner in a camp for workers building the Education City World Cup stadium. Within a week of arriving, he killed himself. Another worker, Mohammad Shahid Miah, from Bangladesh, was electrocuted in his worker accommodation after water came into contact with exposed electricity cables. In India, the family of Madhu Bollapally have never understood how the healthy 43-year-old died of ‘natural causes’ while working in Qatar. His body was found lying on his dorm room floor.

Death is not the only negative outcome, either. Countless other migrants have been maimed by their work on rushing the stadiums up. A recent Time Magazine feature revealed the treatment of one such migrant, Surendra Tamang, a man from Nepal. Tamang arrived in Qatar in 2015 with high hopes for his construction gig. By October 2021, he had extinguished his usefulness to Qatar and was sent back home. He arrived at a Nepal hospital “in debilitating pain, both his kidneys had given out, wrecked by working long hours of hard labor in punishing heat, according to his doctor.” As Tamang told Time, “I used to have dreams.” He’s 31 and will likely be on dialysis for the rest of his life.

Since 2014, Qatar has publicly touted a series of labor reforms, which are both too little and too late. The reforms amount to inching over the bar so that you can no longer technically call the laborers slaves, and it’s unclear the degree to which the reforms are being enforced. In 2020, Amnesty International reported that migrants were still being subjected to “unpaid wages, deceptive recruitment practices, expired residence permits and no possibility of changing jobs.”

Qatar’s list of abuses is long, and some will get more play than others in the coming weeks. A few players will wear rainbow armbands protesting the nation’s virulently anti-gay policies. The games are being played in November because it’s unsafe to play soccer there in the summer. (It remains to be seen how safe it will be in the winter.) Fox, America’s English-language broadcaster for the tournament, has said it will be sticking to sports. For those of us outside the Rupert Murdoch strictures, the focus must remain on what Mustafa Qadri, executive director of human rights group Equidem, told Rolling Stone: “This is a World Cup built on modern slavery.”

Having made itself outrageously wealthy with the world’s worst polluter, Qatar’s ruling class is on the doorstep of completing the dream of authoritarian regimes throughout the region: diversifying beyond fossil fuels by carving out highly lucrative, heavily restricted tourist playgrounds. “Sportswashing” means hosting sporting events to improve a reputation damaged by abuses in other realms. It’s not a sufficient term for what happened here. This is a sports tsunami that has killed thousands to date.

FIFA deflects away from it, and Fox may ignore it entirely, but Qatar’s treatment of slaves is the story. It’s the only thing that even remotely matters. The 2022 World Cup is diabolical, unconscionable, truly evil. It’s irredeemable, from start to finish, no matter what happens next.

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