Beyond Corruption: Qatar Migrant Workers and Issues in FIFA's Value Chain

July 21, 2015

In recent months, the Federation of International Football Federations (FIFA), which regulates the game of football (or soccer), has been in the news, mainly due to allegations of corruption and weak governance. But the organization could be faulted, in addition, for its failure to be a moral leader in the regulation of the value chains of governments and especially companies within its sphere of influence. This contradicts the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (known as the Ruggie Principles), which require business enterprises to respect human rights, avoid infringing on the rights of others and address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved. Though FIFA is not a direct production actor in the sense of a garment factory or diamond company, its power as a producer of world soccer tournaments could be leveraged to require at least that firms building facilities for its tournaments monitor their supply chains to ensure the highest levels of responsible corporate conduct.

The governance of value chains indicates a shift in the understanding of corporate social responsibility from purely charitable activities (whether conceived of as tax or the social license to operate) to more concrete concern with the value-adding activities along the entire supply chain (Lundan 2013). It recognizes that trade and production networks are more interconnected today than was the case in the past. Various components of the production process occur in different jurisdictions and within a variety of legal and regulatory regimes because of globalization such that, in addition to home markets, there exists also a diverse range of external partners and growing numbers of overseas markets both developed and developing (ibid.). Although supply chains, as traditionally understood, feature mostly in manufacturing, there is scope to extend them to other industry sectors such as service and construction. And this is where FIFA and the construction projects for its tournaments come into the equation.

Hosting rights for the 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup was awarded to the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in controversial circumstances. The body’s strict facilities standards means Qatar has to build new infrastructure and upgrade existing ones. This has led to a surge in Asian migrant workers seeking to take advantage of opportunities in the Qatari construction industry. But the treatment of these migrant workers in Qatar is raising human rights and corporate social responsibility questions. By some accounts, in 2014 alone, at least one Nepalese migrant worker died every two days either due to sudden cardiac arrest, heat stroke or workplace accident (Gibson and Pattisson 2014). This figure excludes workers from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, an indication that the total deaths of migrant workers could well be higher. Summer temperatures in Qatar rise as high as 50ºC and the migrant workers have to endure those conditions with limited legal protection.

Most of the companies building the Qatar 2022 facilities are either foreign or local subsidiaries of multinational corporations (Rumsby 2015). They include French firms Bouygues and Vinci (Knaebel 2014) and German companies Deutsche Bahn (German Railways), Hochtief, Siemens and ThyssenKrupp (Dorsey 2011). No fewer than eight UK companies operate in the country (Construction Manager 2013). CH2M and Bechtel, which oversee and manage projects related to 2022, are headquartered in Colorado and San Francisco respectively (Human Rights Watch 2012). It would be illegal for these companies to construct in their home countries using labour practices that prevail in Qatar (Deutsche Welle 2015). As importantly, to the extent that they operate transnationally — incorporated in home and host states, having a global shareholder base, implementing projects globally and attracting workers from around the world — these companies have substantial value chains exposure.

The Qatari legal system has been unhelpful in protecting the human rights of the migrant workers. The country operates the Kafala system, which ties a worker to an employer for at least two years. During this period, the worker’s visa and legal status are bonded to the employer or sponsor (Bajracharya and Sijapati 2012; Khan and Harroff-Tavel 2011; Crocombe 2014). Workers on Qatar’s World Cup construction sites have an extended period (five years) of bondage under the Kafala system. During this time, their travel documents are often confiscated to prevent them from leaving the country (Gibson and Pattisson 2014). The word “slave” is now used to describe the status of these workers, while Qatar is described as a “slave state” (Traynor 2014).

FIFA claims it does not have authority to influence local conditions in its Qatar 2022 value chain. During a 2014 European Parliament hearing on Qatar’s 2022 migrant workers, Theo Zwanzinger, Germany’s member of the FIFA executive committee, said pressures and threats would not achieve much and that, “The decision has been taken to grant the World Cup to Qatar, whether [we] like it or not” (ibid.). This attitude contradicts the Ruggie Principles on Business and Human Rights and the basic concept of an enterprise taking responsibility for what occurs within its sphere of influence. FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke has stated that the organization “upholds the respect for human rights and the application of international norms of behaviour as a principle and part of all our activities” (Human Rights Watch 2012, 10). This has not been demonstrated in practice. While attention has focused on FIFA’s corruption scandals, its failure to exercise moral leadership in other ways (as shown by the story of the migrant workers) has been ignored. It should have considered local labour practices before awarding the hosting rights to Qatar. And once it made that choice, it should still have monitored the Qatari government contracting procedures to ensure that acceptable labour standards and respect for human rights form an essential condition for the contracting construction companies.

Qatar’s hosting opportunity currently hangs in the balance because law enforcement investigators are trying to determine if it obtained the rights through bribery. This raises a separate question regarding corruption of the global value chain, which is not disconnected from human rights as articulated in Principle 10 of the UN Global Compact. It requires businesses to work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery. While the corruption investigation could address the larger issue of internal cleansing within FIFA to establish better governance procedures, the condition of Qatar’s migrant workers gives it an urgent spin. The World Cup cannot be at the cost of such egregious human suffering. FIFA should be concerned both with the regulatory structure of countries it chooses to host its tournaments and the labour practices of companies constructing the facilities. And it should be concerned because those governments and companies form parts of its global value chain.   

Bajracharya, Rooja, and Bandita Sijapati. 2012. “The Kafala System and Its Implications for Nepali Domestic Workers.” Policy Brief No. 1. Kathmandu: Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility.

Construction Manager. 2013. “UK Firms in Qatar threatened with Civil Actions.” October 4.

Crocombe, Nigel G. 2014. “Building a New Future: The 2022 FIFA World Cup as a Potential Catalyst for Labor Reform in Qatar.” Suffolk Transnational Law Review 33.

Deutsche Welle. 2015. “German Vice Chancellor Demands More Rights for World Cup Laborers in Qatar.” March 10.

Dorsey, James. 2011. “German Business Has Vested Interest in Qatar's 2022 World Cup.” June 2.

Gibson, Owen and Pete Pattisson. 2014. “Death Toll among Qatar's 2022 World Cup Workers Revealed.” The Guardian, December 23.

Human Rights Watch. 2012. “Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar ahead of FIFA 2022.” June.

Khan, Azfar and Helene Harroff-Tavel. 2011. “Reforming the Kafala: Challenges and Opportunities in Moving Forward.” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 20 (3-4): 293–313.

Knaebel, Rachel. 2014. “Working Conditions on Construction Sites in Qatar: The Role of Bouygues and Vinci.” Forum Social Mondial, June 23.

Lundan, Sarianna M. 2013. “Human Rights Issues in Multinational Value Chains.” In Research Handbook on Global Justice and International Economic Law, edited by John Linarelli, 146–167. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Rumsby, Ben. 2015. “Olympic Stadium Operators Accused of Forced Labour in Qatar for Build up to 2022 World Cup.” The Telegraph, March 24.

Traynor, Ian. 2014. “FIFA Says There Is Little It Can Do about Labour Conditions in Qatar.” The Guardian, February 13.

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