The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has a dark side: Human rights violations, abuse of migrant workers and climate-related health concerns
While many of these issues are not unfamiliar to the World Cup, this year the games are under particular scrutiny.
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It’s the most popular sporting event in the world. It lures huge crowds in person, and more than 3 billion people watch from their screens. It evokes passion and pride and has been known to make or break individual careers — not to mention the hearts of millions of fans. When it comes to sporting events — or indeed, any global events — World Cup soccer, held once every four years, is in a class of its own.
It has also had its share of controversy — not least because the institution that rules over the event is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, and FIFA has been dogged by corruption investigations for years.
But this year, the World Cup and FIFA are under unusual scrutiny. The 2022 tournament is being held in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar in one of the hottest parts of the world. And it’s not only being played under allegations of corruption and bribery but also the shadow of abuse of migrant workers and discrimination against LGBTQ communities.
So what exactly is the World Cup doing in Qatar?
The decision was made more than a decade ago because even the richest country needs time to prepare; in this way, the timing of the selection is similar to the Olympic Games.
The prime reason given for awarding Qatar was that the Arab world deserved to host — having never been given the privilege before — and that Qatar, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, would have no trouble building whatever was necessary to support the games.
That was one explanation. Another: Qatar bought the 2022 games.
“The 2022 World Cup is being played in Qatar because back in 2010 a majority of FIFA’s Executive Committee members effectively sold it to the highest bidder, in defiance of all logic, precedent and their long-term fiduciary duties to the sport and their federation,” said Andrés Martinez, editorial director at Future Tense and Global Sport Institute Scholar at Arizona State University.
His is not a lone view. The Justice Department and other European investigators have alleged that bribes were paid to FIFA voting members to help Qatar secure hosting rights. Similar suspicion hung over the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia. FIFA denied those charges. So did Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy — the entity responsible for the tournament’s planning and operations.
Meanwhile, other questions and concerns have swirled around the choice of Qatar.
How could the games be played without risk to the players, given that they are traditionally held in the summer months when temperatures in Qatar reach beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit?
And given that the World Cup is, among other things, a monthlong global party, could it really be held in a place where public drunkenness is a criminal offense?
Then there’s perhaps the most delicate question: Was it appropriate to award the World Cup — a coveted prize for any nation — to a country that has landed often on global lists of human rights violators, including the open repression of women and members of the LGBTQ community?
The questions were answered in different ways — the first by arranging an unprecedented shift on the calendar: For the first time in the 92-year history of the World Cup, the games would be played during the cooler months of November and December. This caused additional controversy, given that the new dates would land squarely in midseason for the world’s most prominent and successful soccer leagues — the Premier League (U.K.), La Liga (Spain), Serie A (Italy), Bundesliga (Germany) and others. To accommodate Qatar, the leagues would have to take a midseason break, and their top players — the ones gifted enough to earn places on their national teams — might risk injury in the tournament.
Meanwhile, in the sprint to build the stadiums and other facilities (and it has been a sprint, albeit a 12-year-long one), accusations of harsh treatment of migrant workers have flared as well.
For their part, the authorities in Qatar and FIFA believe that all these questions have been asked and answered — in some cases many times over. Last year, the CEO of the Qatar 2022 bid, Nasser Al Khater, said that the country had been “unfairly treated and scrutinized.”
Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure push came at a cost to migrant workers
To host the tournament, Qatar built seven sprawling stadiums, an airport, subway lines and roads connecting the venues. One group made this all possible: migrant workers. And for them, the shiny new venues have come at a great cost.
The Gulf region has long been a destination for South Asian, African and other migrants looking for work, and millions were drawn to Qatar for construction jobs over the past decade. For workers from countries like Nepal and India, these jobs provided relatively lucrative opportunities to support families back home.
However, human rights organizations and journalists have uncovered a litany of abuses in Qatar’s system of migrant work. The trouble starts from the very beginning. Migrant workers find jobs through recruiting agencies, which often require them to pay exorbitant fees to secure positions — fees that are still being levied years after Qatar made them illegal. A 2021 audit found that more than two-thirds of the workers on World Cup sites had paid a recruitment fee at an average of $1,733. That’s a huge sum for migrants, who have to work under tough conditions when they arrive to pay off the loans they took out for the fee. It can take months or even years for them just to break even.
Migrants also need to secure sponsorship, or kafala, from a company to get a work visa. But companies have been known to use the sponsorship as a form of forced labor — sometimes taking workers’ passports to prevent them from switching jobs. Under pressure from the International Trade Union Confederation, Qatar introduced reforms in 2020 that allow migrants to change employers without permission from their bosses, but Human Rights Watch found that the changes haven’t been fully implemented.
Above all, the working conditions themselves have elicited outcry from human rights groups. Migrant workers have had to toil in the blistering heat to ensure the construction schedule was met, and for some migrants, that undertaking was fatal.
In 2021, an investigation by the Guardian found that 6,751 migrants from five South Asian countries had died in Qatar over the prior decade, and deaths were likely far higher because the investigation didn’t cover migrants from other countries. The data didn’t show whether these migrants were working on World Cup projects specifically, but a human rights researcher told the Guardian that the majority of migrants in Qatar were likely employed in the World Cup construction frenzy.
Qatari officials acknowledged the deaths but claimed they were normal given the number of migrants in the country. As for World Cup projects, officials documented only 40 migrant worker fatalities on World Cup projects, with only three listed as the result of workplace accidents. Many of the deaths are due to “natural causes” and “cardiac arrest,” the government reports say, but the Guardian reported that heat stress is likely to be a contributing factor.
For migrant workers harmed in the World Cup preparation, rights groups, football associations participating in the tournament and former players are pushing FIFA and the Qatar government to step up and provide further compensation, but so far, they haven’t budged.
Qatari officials have cited labor reforms they’ve made over the last decade in response to pressure. “We embarked on this journey after we won the World Cup bid. There was an acknowledgment at the time that gaps existed. We have demonstrated through our various ecosystems that meaningful steps can be taken to fill those gaps,” Mahmoud Qutub, who directs the government’s work on labor rights related to the tournament, told a European Council hearing in October.
Human Rights Lens
Qatar under scrutiny for repression
International human rights organizations have also raised alarm over the treatment of other groups in Qatar. Like other Gulf states, Qatar is ruled by a monarchy, which holds most of the political power, and the Muslim country has tight restrictions on political and civil liberties. Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit, gave the country 25 out of a possible 100 points on its Freedom in the World index in 2021, labeling it “not free.”
Alongside the treatment of migrant workers, some of the biggest human rights issues that have drawn criticism leading up to the World Cup are Qatar’s repression of women and LGBTQ people. Under Qatari law, women’s freedom is curtailed. Male guardians are given broad leeway other their lives; they have the power to decide whether their female relatives study abroad, get married, take certain government jobs and access some reproductive health services, according to Human Rights Watch. Sex outside of marriage is criminalized, and women have been prosecuted even when reporting rape.
LGBTQ people have also faced harsh repression. Consensual sexual relationships between men are illegal and carry a punishment of up to seven years in prison. Recently, Human Rights Watch reported that six LGBTQ people had been detained by the government without cause and beaten and sexually assaulted while in prison. Just last week, a Qatari World Cup ambassador told Germany TV station ZDF that homosexuality was “damage in the mind.”
These issues have caused human rights organizations and fans to call for teams and government officials to boycott the games, and some celebrities including Dua Lipa have refused to perform at the tournament in protest. But similar to the Beijing Winter Olympics, which rights organizations and Western officials also campaigned to boycott over the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, it appears that the main show, at least, will go on.
Qatar is far from a good climate for summer sports
Searing desert heat led to the World Cup shifting to November and December, but players will still face warm temperatures and surprising humidity for what is an arid desert setting in the summer. As Grid noted earlier this year, “the desert nation poking out into the Persian Gulf was never a reasonable choice for a primarily outdoor, summer event.”
November temperatures usually top out in Qatar at around 84 degrees Fahrenheit, far below summer highs, although they have reached up to 100 degrees in that month, with just such a heat wave in the last two weeks setting records. Especially for unacclimated European players currently used to cool, dry winter air, the big adjustment will instead be the humidity from the warm Persian Gulf waters that surround the peninsula, according to University of Pittsburgh sports scientists. They warned that Qatar’s relative average humidity of 71 percent in November could interfere with perspiration cooling players off during games, leading to heat exhaustion.
FIFA and its medical advisers took this into account, and stadium playing fields and stands are being actively cooled with spot air conditioning during games, built in a $7 billion flurry after construction workers suffered heat strokes and other heat-related illnesses. The key to player safety is a week of acclimatization, according to past studies of soccer players in Qatar, to build up a tolerance to the humidity and set expectations of play. During Brazil’s World Cup, players sprinted less and passed more crisply in response to hot weather, for example. During games, keeping players cool and hydrated will matter. The same goes for spectators, although a recent health advisory emphasized getting flu and covid vaccinations ahead of the games as the key health step for visitors.
As kickoff nears — the first game between Ecuador and the host nation is scheduled for Sunday — FIFA has written to all 32 World Cup contenders, urging them to put aside any controversy and focus on the games. Officials in Qatar no doubt hope that fans and the global press will do the same. And some players and managers have also expressed their wish that the tournament not be overshadowed by all the outside tensions.
This week, French President Emmanuel Macron entered the fray, saying that “sports should not be politicized.” He had been pressed to explain the announcement that he would travel to Qatar if France — the defending champion — reaches the semifinals. Macron suggested that any issues involving Qatar’s human rights record and the environment were “questions you have to ask yourself when you award the event.” In other words, “We are where we are. I need to support my team.”
In the end, the conversations about rights will likely coexist with all the passions for the “beautiful game,” and headlines over the next few weeks will feature on-field miracles made by the likes of Lionel Messi and Kevin De Bruyne, Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski — and whichever lesser-known players rise to heroics.
Meanwhile, once a champion is crowned and the curtain comes down in Qatar, the world can look forward to another novelty for World Cup. In the 2026 edition, hosting duties will for the first time be shared by three nations: the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley and Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.