Did the World Cup change the situation on the ground for workers in Qatar? We spoke to Dr. Daniela Heerdt to find out

By Thomas Ansell

Now that the dust has settled after the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar, it is a good time to reflect on whether hosting the biggest sporting competition in the world had the transformative effect promised by FIFA (the global body for football).

In October 2022, FIFA President Gianni Infantino stepped onto the stage at the World Innovation Summit for Health in Doha, Qatar. As quoted by the FIFA website, Infantino put forward that having the global spotlight on Qatar had helped improve the situation for migrant workers: “we have been speaking about workers, about workers’ rights and about human rights – some criticism was raised, rightfully, and changes have happened,” he said. We reached out to Dr. Daniela Heerdt, a researcher in the field of sport and human rights at the T.M.C. Asser Institute in The Hague, and a specialist in the human rights changes that multinational sporting events can bring about in host countries, to assess whether hosting the World Cup in Qatar did make a difference for workers there.

Daniela is working on sport and human rights at The Asser Institute, organizing events like a Masterclassin Responding to human rights abuse in sport: Safe, effective and appropriate investigation, to be held on January 18-19. In collaboration with the German Law Journal, Asser will also be holding a digital workshop on the Qatar 2022 World Cup and its transformative impact (or not) on Qatar and the rights of migrant workers on 15 and 16 February.

Global focus pushes change

“I strongly believe that the pressure on Qatar, from the moment that the World Cup was awarded in 2010, helped make changes such as introducing a minimum wage, prohibiting the confiscation of passports, and enabling workers to switch employers without requiring the approval of their current employer”, says Daniela. This was partially the result of increased civil society and media attention, she says, but “also through the procedure that was launched by a number of States via the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) complaint mechanism.”

However, whilst laws were indeed changed, says Daniela, their implementation has lagged behind: “A few laws have changed on paper, but their implementation and also enforcement is difficult and slow, meaning that in effect workers are still suffering from rights violations on a daily basis.” Additionally, the media and civil society focus was razor-sharp for Qatar: “It is interesting on a general note to question why media coverage and criticism was so much more prevalent and negative for this event when compared to past events in China or Russia.”

A new system can’t be implemented overnight

A large amount of the criticism levelled at Qatar by civil society groups and the media concerned the Kafala (‘sponsored’) system for workers. It should be noted that Qatar is by no means the only country to tie workers to their employers via this system. According to Daniela, we should not assume that the system is abolished in Qatar or anywhere else because of the World Cup. The system was/is built on a system of laws that [as a result] keep it alive. Only a few of these laws have been changed or abolished; not all. And again, in practice and on the ground, things are only changing very slowly [if at all].” In any case, Daniela adds, it will be several years before we are able to judge the whether there are lasting changes made in Qatar and across the Gulf.

FIFA is improving too, but still shirks some responsibility

A large amount of criticism has been levelled at FIFA, football’s global governing body – and there has even been a Netflix documentary series looking into its internal factions, alleged corruption and history. And, says Daniela, some of this criticism has pushed FIFA to be more considerate of human rights in its work.

FIFA has changed its statutes and adopted a Human Rights Policy, changed bidding regulations for World Cups, and set up a Human Rights Advisory Board, highlights Daniela. “In fact, FIFA’s steps and the growing criticism on the human rights impact of mega-sporting events has helped to raise awareness on the link between sport and human rights more generally… At the Asser Institute we have a summer programme (organised in partnership with CSHR and FIFPRO) that takes place annually, in which we discuss what sport can and should do to respect and protect human rights in its policies and practices.”

Responsibility lies across several institutions and organisations

Whilst FIFA has tried to improve, responsibility for human rights and human rights violations doesn’t just lie with FIFA, says Daniela. “From the owner of the event (FIFA), to the organizers (the Supreme Committee) including the public and private parts of that (a company owned 51% by FIFA and the rest by Qatar), the Qatari government, the contractors and sub-contractors, the sponsors, the broadcasters, …  and in the case of Qatar and migrant workers specifically, it’s also recruitment agencies that have a responsibility for the violations. It’s a long list, and taking the approach of shared responsibility between all actors that were involved and contributed to human rights violations related to the event makes the most sense to understand and address these violations.”

Daniela wrote about this subject, and where responsibility and accountability lies, at length in her PhD thesis, which is available here.

Thank-you to Dr. Daniela Heerdt for her insights! Daniela also spoke as an expert at the Just Peace Movie Night screening of ‘The Workers Cup’ just before the World Cup began in 2022.

Photo by Hatem Boukhit on Unsplash