Is the World Cup worth dying for?

The startling report by the International Trade Union Commission ‘The Case Against Qatar’ released this week predicts that 4,000 migrant construction workers will die in Qatar while labouring to build stadiums, hotels, subways, roads and a new airport in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. 1,200 workers have already died on the job in Qatar since 2010 but construction continues unabated. FIFA say the situation is Qatar is a ‘complex matter’, the Qatari government says even less. In response to reports of the workers’ deaths so far, the head of Qatar's National Human Rights Committee said that the death rates among foreign workers are ‘normal’.

In the past twenty years, global labour migration has increased exponentially. Approximately 90 million migrant workers now work around the world providing essential services in construction, domestic work, care-giving, agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing and service work.  Low-wage migrant workers routinely encounter hazardous work environments and encounter problems such as unpaid wages, unsafe work conditions, inadequate rest, inhumane housing conditions, or employers’ confiscation of their identity documents. Accounts of exploitation, abuse, human trafficking, debt bondage and death are not uncommon. 

The supply of migrant labour is greater than the demand, and many countries see little incentive to better regulate and enforce regulations protecting migrant workers. Qatar, along with other destination countries have little incentive (and minimal social pressure) to improve working conditions. The countries where the workers originate from also profit significantly from workers’ remittances, recruitment and insurance costs.  Indeed, in 2012, global remittances from migrant workers to their origin countries amounted to $534 billion – triple the amount of global development aid. This incentivises income maximisation at the expense of worker protection.  

But this is not only a challenge for governments at both ends of the migration process it also involves the companies that recruit and employ these workers and organisations like FIFA for whom they are ultimately ‘working’. Migrant workers routinely fall into an accountability vacuum with so many parties – governments and the private sector – potentially responsible for their working conditions along a complex and convoluted global supply chain, but none willing to act.  

Some might argue, this is an issue for governments to regulate. It is a problem for the Qatari to resolve in Qatar. But as globalisation has expanded our ability to source products and labour from all over the globe, so too has the responsibility for their working conditions dispersed. If we are concerned with the end quality of the products we buy or the stability of hotels we stay in, should we not also be concerned about the quality of conditions in which the soccer balls were made or the hotels built? Responsibility can and should accrue to governments but the many and varied private actors who profit along the way should not be immune to assuming some of this mantle of responsibility. This includes FIFA, an organisation which bears no direct legal responsibility for the conditions under which these migrant workers labour, but will benefit enormously from a successful event. 

The world we now live in, is one massive global supply chain and the roles and responsibilities of the various actors in this chain are becoming more clearly delineated. In 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed a new set of Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights designed to establish a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity. While the UN document asserts that all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, the means of enforcing this responsibility is largely left to national governments to devise. The Guiding Principles appear to be having limited impact in Qatar. With pressure on the Qatari government to prove the naysayers and critics of the process in which it was awarded the World Cup wrong, its primary emphasis is on building world class facilities. How, and under what conditions the stadiums, hotels and accompanying infrastructure are built appears to be of secondary importance. This lack of care and regulation of the working conditions of low wage workers is not confined to the construction industry. 

As the anniversary of the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh approaches in which over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers were killed, what has changed in the way in which global working conditions are regulated? It took the death of more than 1,000 workers in Dhaka for the Bangladeshi government, international apparel brands, the International Labour Organisation and local factory owners to come together to develop plans to improve factory conditions. A year later, incremental progress is being made but as the media spotlight fades so too does the attention and incentive for action. How many more workers’ deaths will it take in Qatar for the government, construction companies, recruitment agencies and FIFA to step up and say ‘enough’?


By Justine Nolan and Bassina Farbenblum


Justine Nolan is Deputy Director of the Australian Human Rights Center and a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, UNSW.

Bassina Farbenblum is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, UNSW and directs the Human Rights Clinic. She is the author of the recent report ‘Migrant Workers' Access to Justice at Home: Indonesia'