When it comes to the Qatar World Cup, look north to find a moral compass | Barry Glendenning

Norwegian clubs and players have taken a stand for migrant workers, but who is prepared to follow them?

While we should expect no better from the ghouls at Fifa, it remains an enduring ignominy that more than a decade after their decision to grant the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, apparently widespread global indifference means the tournament remains fully on course to take place in the new-build stadiums of the Arab state. So much so that a qualification process some thought might never happen began this week.

Thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar since Sepp Blatter gifted them their Fifa-approved golden ticket. The state’s own official figures for deaths specifically related to construction for World Cup stadiums are small – three “work-related” and 34 “non‑work-related” fatalities, it says – but the danger in this building boom feels present and very real.

In 2018 the Norwegian journalist Håvard Melnæs visited Qatar for Josimar magazine and, in a move that would almost certainly have been stymied had local officialdom got wind of it, interviewed an obliging construction worker from the Czech Republic. The site foreman revealed he had witnessed so many deaths he had actually become inured to them. He recalled one accident in which a wall had collapsed, killing six workers and severely injuring eight more. “The dead and wounded were immediately collected by ambulances and driven away,” he said. “Then we kept working, as if nothing had happened.” Qatar says legal action was taken over this incident.

Like most of Qatar’s two million-strong migrant workforce, the labourers tasked with clearing the rubble which temporarily entombed their colleagues are likely to have paid big fees they could not afford to recruitment agents. Many would have arrived to learn they were being paid far less than they had been promised, often doing different, more perilous jobs to the ones for which they had applied.

Sepp Blatter, the then Fifa president, announces in December 2010 that Qatar would be hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Sepp Blatter, the then Fifa president, announces in December 2010 that Qatar would be hosting the 2022 World Cup. Photograph: Walter Bieri/EPA

Domiciled in labour camps – some heavily guarded and with high concrete walls – they would have been bussed to work each morning at daybreak and forced to work long hours, six days a week in temperatures of up to 50C. Some, but not all, employers appear to observe the local law that designates the hottest hours during which you can hear your own skin crackle a rest period. The Qataris insist that companies found to be violating the laws on summer working hours or overtime payments are penalised.

Wages vary depending on work but mainly on nationality. Some workers earn as little as £130 a month, while all are prevented from seeking more lucrative employment elsewhere by the “kafala” sponsorship system. It isn’t slavery, but the conditions appear to have sinister echoes of the stratification of apartheid-era South Africa. Readers of a certain age will recall the seriously dim international view that was taken of any touring parties who put money before morals and chose to compete there.

A country fabled for its habit of loudly trumpeting labour reforms then appearing to fail to act on them, Qatar appeared to take a small but significant step in the right direction last August by announcing labour reforms, including making it easier for workers to change jobs. A minimum monthly wage of £198.56 was also introduced last week. However, Migrant-Rights.org has now revealed that the 2020 reforms aimed at dismantling the kafala system are being reviewed by the state’s legislative body, the Shura Council.

Well aware of the revulsion and criticism their winning bid to host World Cup 2022 created 11 years ago, Qatar’s Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy, the organisation responsible for delivering the competition, has done everything in its power to discourage negative reporting ever since. A spokesperson for the committee told the Guardian: “Preparations for the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East and Arab world have already brought significant benefits to workers on SC [supreme committee] and non-SC projects in Qatar.” But the sense that much more could have been done to help them remains.

So far so depressing, but in Norway a storm of indignation has been whipped up and is spreading. Recently, the top-flight club Tromsø issued a statement voicing their disgust at the “corruption and modern slavery” surrounding the Qatar World Cup and called on the Norwegian Football Federation to boycott the competition. Their appeal has since been echoed by several other high profile Eliteserien teams. These are bold calls, coming as they do from clubs and supporters whose success-starved national football team are currently spearheaded by a player as gifted as Erling Haaland. Whether or not those who run Norwegian football will pay any heed remains to be seen but it will be intriguing to see if clubs and fans elsewhere follow their lead. On Wednesday night, Norway’s players wore T-shirts flagging up human rights abuses before their qualifier against Gibraltar. Earlier in the day, the England defender John Stones answered questions about Qatar in a pre-match press conference.

The Al Bayt Stadium
The Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar, due to host the opening ceremony of the 2022 World Cup. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

This week the Dutch Football Association issued a statement in which it condemned human rights abuses in Qatar but said it will not boycott the World Cup, promising instead to take its corporate responsibilities seriously and participate “in a socially responsible way”. It claims to have partly based its decision on advice from various human rights groups who claim a boycott would lead to already impoverished workers further losing out. The English FA has yet to take a stance on the issue of migrant workers in Qatar but seems likely to adopt a similar party line to the Dutch, which would almost certainly be widely supported by fans.

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A boycott seems unthinkable – if recent history at Manchester City and Newcastle United is any sort of guide, football supporters seem prepared to look the other way as far as human rights abuses are concerned if the alternative is the possibility of on-field success. While most national governing bodies, footballers and fans would almost certainly claim to find the dangers and indignities visited upon migrant workers in Qatar abhorrent, their reservoirs of empathy are – perhaps understandably – not bottomless. Following our moral compass and railing against obvious discrimination is all very well until it threatens to derail the possibility of travelling to and winning the World Cup.

• This article was amended on 1 May 2021 to clarify details of the new labour laws introduced and under review. A reference to labour camps was also amended to say “some” are heavily guarded.


Barry Glendenning

The GuardianTramp

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