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Paid for in Blood: The Human Cost of the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup

Hiruni Walimunige

With the 2016 Olympic Games fast approaching, Brazil is once again in the spotlight. Despite the promise of a vibrant and colourful atmosphere for this year’s games, the recent Zika outbreak and the issue of water pollution have raised concerns over the safety of the incoming athletes, officials and tourists. However, it is the country’s treatment of migrant workers, an issue that has remained since its hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, that has made up a significant bulk of the world’s negative media coverage. While allegations of corruption and bidding controversy dominate the media, Qatar has faced similar backlash over the inhumane treatment of migrant workers employed in the construction of the football stadiums in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The issue of forced labour is not uncommon for poverty-stricken Asian and African countries. Migrants from India, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Philippines often seek employment in wealthier countries, most commonly in the Middle East, as labourers and domestic staff. After paying exorbitant registration fees to agencies, these workers face long working hours, low pay and the likelihood of abuse at the hands of their employers.

In Brazil, large numbers of migrant workers from the earthquake-stricken Haiti and poorer areas of the country itself arrived in droves for the construction of the stadiums, in preparation of the FIFA World Cup in 2014. Labourers reported to be living in squalid conditions, forced to work 12 hour shifts without holidays for criminally low wages. Two years on, these conditions have not changed, with the preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio producing a similar narrative of death and exploitation.

Similarly, the kafala (sponsorship) system in Qatar legally binds migrant workers to their employers. During their contract period, workers are monitored by their employers to the extent where they are unable to enter or leave the country without their sponsor’s permission. Accounts of being denied wages, facing abuse and having passports confiscated are not uncommon, with the execution of the system often being compared to modern day slavery. According to Amnesty International, 441 workers died in 2014, with 4000 expected to die before the beginning of the first match itself. While the issue has garnered international media attention, little has been improved. FIFA has made some effort to publicise their dissatisfaction with the issue, even going so far as to work closely with the Emir, human rights organisations and trade unions. When it comes to “concrete action” however, responsibility has instead been shifted to the Qatari government. Hopes that workers could face better treatment were raised, with reforms on the treatment of migrant workers proposed in May 2014. However, Amnesty International’s report on these reforms paints a picture of government inaction and continuing exploitation.

The labour reforms proposed by the Qatari government were as follows:

· Changes to the exit permit system: workers would now be able to depart after a 72 hour grace period. However, their employers would still able to object

· Passport confiscation: employers would face a fine of QAR 50,000 (previously QAR 10,000) if found confiscating employee’s passports.

·“No Objection Certificate”: the certificate, which workers were required to obtain before changing jobs, would be replaced with an “employment contract system”. Under this new system workers would be free to change jobs after a set time period within the contract.

·“Two year rule”: abolishing the rule which would prohibit workers from re-entering the country for two years after the end of a contract.

While these reforms sound promising, an investigation by Amnesty International a year after they were proposed shows little has changed. There have been partial changes in the access to justice and the amelioration of safety regulations and living conditions. Overall, however, changes to the system are essentially non-existent. Workers are still unable to form unions, very little has been done to offset passport confiscation and the underlying kafala system has not been referred to at all in these reforms.

With the changes made by Qatar and FIFA themselves being unsubstantial, the onus is now on governmental organisations and the corporations supporting the World Cup to facilitate change. While countries like Ethiopia and Uganda have been known to restrict migration to Gulf countries, this gives an opportunity for outside recruiters to further exploit workers by sending them through unregulated channels. Instead, the Human Rights Watch suggests increasing services in overseas embassies, informing people who intend to work overseas of their rights and consistently monitoring recruitment agencies.

In their refusal to continue with sponsorship of the World Cup, corporations previously in support of FIFA show the most promise in garnering a turnaround of the situation. Castrol, Continental Tyres, Emirates, Sony and Johnson & Johnson have all backed out of sponsorship deals with the organisation in light of its controversies. However, with many companies eager to fill their places, the full brunt of this loss is not likely have a positive impact on the situation of the workers. With inaction now being the norm, the power to change this situation now rests in the hands of governmental bodies, corporate sponsors and their customer bases.