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Will the World Cup Achieve LGBTQ+ and Workers’ Rights Goals?

Even before the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar, severe doubts arose about its stated goals of inclusivity and support for migrant workers who suffer labor abuses.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) for the 2022 World Cup, which started on Sunday 20 November, as “the most inclusive, people-focused edition of the tournament ever held”.

But LGBTQ+ football fans and migrant worker “slaves” building World Cup stadiums in Qatar claim that they face serious discrimination, abuse, and threats.

So how long have pinkwashing – trumpeting LGBTQ+ rights credentials with little action to back it up – and migrant worker abuse claims been going on? How serious are the issues, and has FIFA scored an own goal by “sportswashing” rather than resolving the issues?

iResearch Services Chief Executive Officer, Yogesh Shah, said: “Sportwashing’ has become just as spoken about and is as contentious a term as greenwashing in the last twelve months. With new owners of premier league clubs to rival tournaments that have threatened to uproot years of sporting tradition, the sporting world finds itself in a position where the motive behind major events is being called into question. The World Cup in Qatar is the greatest and most obvious example of this. Discrimination of minorities, protests from participating countries and the documented mistreatment of migrant workers has shrouded the tournament in controversy.

“It raises a large question around governments’ involvement in sport, and specifically around the organization of large-scale events in nations that actively practice prejudice policy. With many professional organizations across multiple different sectors, scrutinized and criticized over their DEI and ESG policy to the point where they actively lose business, why is it the case that whole governments and countries appear exempt? No matter the success of this world cup, it will always be remembered for its controversy and while the corruption that plagued FIFA for decades now supposedly over, the world is unlikely to be as forgiving if a similar nation were to receive the nomination to host the event again.”

LGBTQ+ fans face “targeted discrimination”

From December 2010, when Qatar was controversially selected to host the 2022 Men’s Football World Cup, doubts were cast about the acceptance of LGBTQ+ fans in a country where same-sex relationships are criminalized.

When the then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter was asked for his advice to gay fans wanting to attend the tournament, he said: “They should refrain from any sexual activities.” He later apologized for joking and reiterated that FIFA opposed discrimination. Similar comments were made three years later by Hassan Al-Thawadi, who led Qatar’s World Cup bid team. He said everybody was welcome at the World Cup, as long as they refrained from public displays of affection, which were not part of Qatar’s culture and tradition.

In Qatar, it is a criminal offense to engage in same-sex relationships, with punishments ranging from fines to death by stoning. Only a month ago, Human Rights Watch witnessed arbitrary arrests, detention and ill-treatment of LGBTQ+ Qataris.

In December 2020, Qatari officials said they would allow the display of rainbow flags and other pro-LGBTQ+ imagery at World Cup matches, the Associated Press reported. A Qatar security chief later cast doubt on that, but the England Football Association said it had been assured that fans with rainbow flags would not be arrested unless they displayed them in and around mosques.

Some World Cup-recommended hotels refused to accept same-sex couples, it was reported in May 2022, although FIFA said they would be reminded of their obligation not to discriminate against fans.

Slogans, gaslighting, and avoidance

The situation became so concerning that eight LGBTQ+ rights and fan groups in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America issued a joint statement saying they could not tell members that they would be safe in Qatar. The statement, from groups including Three Lions Pride from England and The Rainbow Wall from Wales, said, a “World Cup for all” was just a “well-drummed PR line” and their discussions with FIFA and Qatari tournament organizers had been met with “slogans, gaslighting, and avoidance ”.

However, there was positive news in October, when nine men’s national football teams, including England and Wales, said their captains would wear the One Love diversity rainbow armband launched by the Netherlands side, even if FIFA took action against them. The Football Association of England says it aims to, “Send a message against discrimination of any kind as the eyes of the world fall on the global game.”

Fresh concern emerged a month later, when World Cup Ambassador Khalid Salman said in a TV interview that homosexuality was “a damage of the mind” and that being gay was “haram” or forbidden.

“Focus on the football”’

 Added to this, a letter from FIFA president Gianni Infantino and secretary general Fatma Samoura in the weeks leading up to the World Cup asked the 32 World Cup teams to stop “handing out moral lessons” and instead “focus on the football”.

It said: “We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world, but please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

The comments were widely condemned, with The Athletic sports website excoriating the letter. They said: “Infantino’s words belittling homophobia and workers’ rights to countries going to the World Cup are lamentable and dumbfoundingly stupid.”

Pithy hashtags and PR fluff-lines”

LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups England’s 3LionsPride, Wales’ Rainbow Wall & Pride in Football, the network of UK LGBT+ fan groups, issued a statement saying: “FIFA claim to have a unique opportunity to ‘welcome and embrace everyone, regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality’ to the World Cup and yet appear to try limiting the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This appears to be an attempt to prevent competing nations from uplifting the voices of affected communities, such as migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community, who have consistently said this is not a World Cup for all.

“Pithy hashtags and PR flufflines do not ensure human rights are upheld, nor do they guarantee a welcoming tournament for all.”

Rachael Kinsella, Editor in Chief at iResearch Services, shares this disappointment and sees it as a missed opportunity for inclusivity and global co-operation.

“It’s a case of several impressive steps forward and then numerous steps back in sporting inclusivity. Enormous strides forward have been made with high-profile events like the Paralympics and the ground-breaking FIFA Women’s World Cup. The high-profile England win broke down barriers, provided a much stronger platform for inclusivity in sport and brought people together in a way that has just not been possible before. In a similar way, the buzz around the London Olympics in 2012 was a springboard for positive perceptions, breaking down barriers and an opportunity for meaningful sports-based PR, with both the athletes and the events themselves leaving a lasting legacy in rightfully recognizing diversity and sporting excellence.

“With this World Cup, denying those involved in making the tournament happen – the workers, players and fans – of their human rights and the poor ethics and governance surrounding both the tournament and host nation are a drastic step in the wrong direction. Even more upsetting when it could have been an ideal, suitably high-profile opportunity for inclusivity, tolerance, and ultimately change that brings global benefits on a human and economic level.

“But I also want to highlight a couple of positive developments. It is progress that a diverse set of voices are now able to have the difficult conversations about the situation – whether those discussions can lead to action is another matter altogether, particularly when those who are speaking out most strongly are being silenced.

“It is also heartening to see an all-women team officiating at the World Cup in the match between Germany and Costa Rica for the first time in 92 years. France’s Stephanie Frappart refereed at the Al Bayt Stadium, assisted by Neuza Back from Brazil and Karen Diaz from Mexico. We hope to see more women referees and assistants at the highest levels of the men’s game.”

According to the LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups statement, FIFA is “seeking to silence the significant global concerns surrounding the serious human rights violations and targeted discrimination reported to be happening in Qatar. We are expected to fall silent whilst FIFA encourages us to respect a culture which freely allows voices carrying damaging messages calling for ‘a clean sporting event without homosexuals or troublemakers.’

“We collectively condemn FIFA for blatantly turning their back on the global football community and their own commitment to protect and uphold human rights.”

In response, FIFA says it is “confident that all necessary measures will be in place for LGBTQ+ fans and allies to enjoy the tournament in a welcoming and safe environment, just as for everyone else.”

Migrant worker stadium builders treated as “slaves” World Cup infrastructure and stadiums have been built on the foundations of ”forced labor” and ”modern slavery” involving migrant workers, according to human rights organizations and media reports.

Claims that dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers died in Qatar, modern-day slavery abuses, and forced labor on World Cup infrastructure projects, were made by the Guardian back in 2013. In addition, according to the newspaper, workers constructing the World Cup finals stadium had their passports taken away and could not leave.

Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said: “The evidence uncovered by the Guardian is clear proof of the use of systematic forced labor in Qatar. In fact, these working conditions and the astonishing number of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labor to the slavery of old where human beings were treated as objects. There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labor. It is already happening.”

Migrant workers make up more than 90% of the Qatari workforce – the highest ratio in the world. Up to 1.5 million more were needed to build the World Cup stadiums, roads, ports, and hotels. Around four in 10 migrant workers were Nepalese.

Migrant worker exploitation “rife”

A 2013 investigation from Amnesty International said exploitation of migrant construction workers in Qatar by employers was rife. Three years later, a follow-up report, ‘The ugly side of the beautiful game’, suggested workers had to take out loans to find work, were given false promises about pay, had their passports confiscated and had to endure dirty and cramped accommodation.

Amnesty International Secretary General, Salil Shetty said: “The abuse of migrant workers is a stain on the conscience of world football. For players and fans, a World Cup stadium is a place of dreams. For some of the workers who spoke to us, it can feel like a living nightmare.”

Many of the points raised in the report had been addressed and investigations about the concerns were being conducted, Qatar’s Government Communication Office said at the time.

Kafala reforms

In October 2017, Qatar and the International Labour Organization put forward an agreement to extensively reform migrant workers’ conditions, including the kafala (sponsorship) system. The kafala system is a legal framework defining the relationship between migrant workers and their employers.

To ensure their work visas and residency are valid, foreign workers must be sponsored by local citizens or companies. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence is dependent on their employer. However, critics say that restrictions on changing employers make workers vulnerable to exploitation and that despite reforms to the system, worker abuse remains an issue.

Amnesty International commented: “The question of whether this is a true game changer will be answered by the actions of the government in the coming period. Will it, for example, categorically clarify whether it intends to change the law to allow all migrant workers, without exception, to leave the country without their employers’ say-so?”

In 2019, Amnesty International raised further concerns that hundreds of migrant workers had given up on justice and returned home penniless. Deputy Director of Global Issues, Stephen Cockburn, said: “Despite the significant promises of reform which Qatar has made ahead of the 2022 World Cup, it remains a playground for unscrupulous employers. Migrant workers often go to Qatar in the hope of giving their families a better life; instead, many people return home penniless after spending months chasing their wages, with too little help from the systems that are supposed to protect them.”

The committees have been so inundated with complaints, and have so few judges, that workers are forced to wait months for their cases to be processed, Amnesty claimed. Even when compensation is awarded it is often not paid, and Qatar had so far failed to launch a support fund it promised earlier.

A month later, Qatar pledged to abolish its labor system that ties migrant workers to their employers and requires them to have their company’s permission to leave the country. Qatar’s Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasir bin Khalifa Al Thani confirmed the country’s “full commitment to the fundamental rights relating to labor”. In January 2020, it announced that most migrant workers previously prevented from leaving the country without their employer’s permission no longer needed an exit permit.

Human Rights Watch says Qatar deserves credit for attempting reforms, “but the benefits have been limited due to their late introduction, narrow scope, or poor enforcement.” This was reinforced by Human Rights Watch seven months later,  with claims that 93 migrant workers from 60 employers had been cheated out of their wages. The Kafala sponsorship was one of three factors that lay behind the problem, along with deceptive recruitment practices and business practices including the ‘pay when paid’ clause, which allows the subcontractor to delay payments to workers. Similar wage abuse claims were reported at the time by the Al Jazeera media outlet.

”6,500 migrant worker fatalities”

The scale of migrant worker fatalities was revealed in early 2021, with claims by the Guardian that there had been more than 6,500 deaths of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka since the World Cup was awarded.

The Qatari government says that the number of deaths is proportionate to the size of the migrant workforce and includes white-collar workers who have died naturally. Human rights organizations argue some of the deaths by natural causes were workers who died from heat stress before reforms prohibiting outside work in temperatures over 32.1 degrees were introduced in 2021.

Only 20% of expatriates from the five countries are employed in construction, and work-related deaths account for fewer than 10% of fatalities in the group. The Qatari government said: “The mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population. However, every lost life is a tragedy, and no effort is spared in trying to prevent every death in our country.”

A FIFA spokesperson said, “With the very stringent health and safety measures on-site […] the frequency of accidents on FIFA World Cup construction sites has been low when compared to other major construction projects around the world.”

Pay Up, FIFA

Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, said families of those who have died while working on World Cup construction projects should be financially compensated.

FIFA has provided a total of $260 million in “legacy funds”’ for humanitarian causes for previous tournaments in South Africa, Brazil and Russia. Six months before the 2022 World Cup kick-off, 10 human rights organizations and fan groups called on FIFA to compensate migrant workers who had suffered labor abuses to be compensated.

The letter said: “In awarding the 2022 World Cup without imposing any conditions to avoid foreseeable labor rights abuses and subsequently failing to take timely and effective preventive measures in this regard, FIFA contributed to the widespread abuse of migrant workers on World Cup-related projects that followed.” Some national football associations, including England, have backed the call.

Under the #PayUpFIFA campaign, the letter urged the setting aside at least US$440 million – the amount in prize money for teams participating in the World Cup – to support remediation. It said: “This would represent just a small percentage of FIFA’s anticipated US$6 billion revenues from the tournament and the US$1.6 billion it holds in reserves.”

FIFA was open to setting up a compensation fund, the Associated Press reported in October 2022, but at the time of writing, no resolution has been announced.

“If we complain, we are fired”

The reports of worker abuse are continuing even as the tournament kicks off. A report titled ‘If we complain, we are fired’, published by UK-based human rights group Equidem, included stories from affected migrant workers of persistent and widespread labor rights violations.

While the report concluded that many migrant workers had endured a hostile environment while building World Cup stadiums, it also detailed cases of good practice concerning reporting channels, healthcare access and safety improvements.

However, Equidem Executive Director, Mustafa Qadri, concluded: “FIFA can no longer turn a blind eye and should set up a compensation fund immediately.”

Safeguarding worker health and wellbeing

FIFA said in a statement that regular independent inspections, occupational health and safety measures on-site, comprehensive medical checks, and other measures played a part in safeguarding the health and well-being of World Cup workers. They said: “The robustness of this program has been recognized repeatedly by experts and trade unions over the years, reaching the highest international standards in terms of health and safety. We are in contact with our Qatari counterparts to assess the information included in the Equidem report.”

In response, Qatar’s Supreme Committee, which oversees the World Cup construction and infrastructure projects said that the Equidem report was “littered with inaccuracies and misrepresentations”.

“Since introducing the workers’ welfare standards in 2014, our efforts have resulted in significant improvements in accommodation standards, health and safety regulations, grievance mechanisms, healthcare provisions, and reimbursement of illegal recruitment fees to workers,” a spokesperson said. “We are committed to delivering the legacy we promised. A legacy that improves lives and lays the foundation for fair, sustainable, and lasting labor reforms.”

Human rights issues

Despite FIFA’s appeal for the teams to concentrate on the football, the ongoing allegations of discrimination and abuse of LGBTQ+ fans and migrant workers mean that whatever happens on the pitch, the 2022 World Cup will also be remembered for human rights issues.

Human Rights Day takes place on 10 December, the day of the World Cup Quarter Finals, while both the United Nations’ International Migrants Day and Qatar’s National Day on 18 December coincide with the date of the final of the 2022 World Cup.

 Let’s hope that, whoever wins, we can celebrate safety and inclusion for LGBTQ+ fans, and the launch of a compensation fund for migrant workers who have suffered labor abuse.

  • LGBTQ+ and workers’ rights are human rights – and we all stand to benefit from diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.
  • iResearch Services’ new report ‘A Fairer Future: Equity and Inclusion in Professional Services’ ­­examines diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies for the UK and US within professional services firms and the business sectors they advise. While great strides have been made in bringing DEI issues to the forefront of board agendas, more work still needs to be done, particularly on LGBTQ+ and disability/chronic illness policies.
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