Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“The problem is all around if you choose to see it”: Nicholas McGeehan on slavery in Qatar

Posted on 2 December 2017 by Ben Morse

With the draw for the group stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup taking place on Friday, and Saturday 2nd December being the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, World Cup 2022 being held in Qatar, has been brought back into the public’s gaze.

The highly publicised investigations of corruption that that have engulfed FIFA, and the involvement of a host country with a suspect human rights record, brings yet further scrutiny to the award of World Cup 2022.

Fuelled by the world’s third-largest natural-gas and oil reserves, the Qatari economy grew dramatically in the 1990s, resulting in the country having the highest per capita income in the world.  The ensuing expansion in construction meant that the former British protectorate was not able to fulfil labour demands locally, and so turned to alternative workforces imported from other nations, particularly India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

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With a population just over 2.5million, and a migrant worker population of over one million, the proportion of the external labour being used was highly evident.

The allocation of the FIFA World Cup in 2022 to Qatar increased the demand for migrant workers further, to build the stadia and infrastructure that would be required to host a major footballing tournament.

Understandably, migrants workers are often lured to Qatar by the prospect of earning a decent wage in an up-and-coming country, which can then be sent back home to their family in their country of origin.

Earlier this year, I was worked in two schools in Besisahar, Nepal teaching English to teenagers. Whilst there, as a way of engaging the students and encouraging them to practice their English, I often asked the pupils what their parents did for a living.

Despite my sample size being relatively small, the overwhelming answer was that their Dads worked in the Middle East as construction workers, and that they had not seen them for a number of years.

That said, the exploitation of cheap labour for from other countries is hardly new, with almost every country in the Western world makes use of migrant workers, no matter how vociferously their leaders may deny it.

But the difference between Western countries use of migrant workers and the Qatari usage comes down to freedom and worker’s rights.

Nicholas McGeehan, former senior researcher for Qatar at Human Rights Watch, told me about his experiences in Qatar.

McGeehan said: “What is obvious to anyone who travels to the Gulf is the effective segregation of the migrant workers from the rest of the population. Westerners and Gulf nationals inhabit the glitzy hotels and malls, while the migrant workers live on the margins of society, visible but present as a servant class only.

“Most Qataris and expats would simply never travel to the labour camps where they live, which are dotted around the outskirts of Doha and look like industrial estates rather than sites of mass habitation.

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“If you walk around these camps and speak to the workers there, the extent of the problem smacks you forcefully in the face.

“But if you want to understand the problem, all you really need to do is talk to a migrant worker and ask him or her about the situation.

“The problem is all around if you choose to see it.”

Qatar has antiquated ‘sponsorship laws’ which have been coined as “modern-day slavery” by the United States Department of State.

These laws, whilst re-written last year, still mean that the sponsors of the migrant workers possess the power to cancel workers’ residency permits, deny workers’ ability to change employers, report a worker as “absconded” to police authorities, and deny permission to leave the country.

And naturally these powers mean that migrant workers are far less likely to report any abuse to the authorities when they have been mistreated, which serves to only make their situation worse.

I’m suspect that if you ask most football fans about the 2022 World Cup, they will generally acknowledge that there are human rights issues in Qatar.

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But therein lies the problem with the current situation.

Whereas people are aware of the Qatari human rights issues, a solution is seemingly no nearer.

McGeehan said: “There has been a massive shift in the sense that everybody now knows about this problem. The issue used to be about raising awareness of the seriousness of the problem but now the issue is how do you take this discontent and transform it into reform.

“That’s a much more difficult task, especially when you’re dealing with unfathomably wealthy autocratic governments.

“One unintended consequence of the focus on Qatar has been that a lot of people don’t realise how bad the problem is elsewhere, which leads to the ludicrous situation whereby the Abu Dhabi government try to smear Qatar over its poor record on workers’ rights, while they have the exact same problem themselves.”

From a football fan’s standpoint, people  just want to watch a World Cup where off-the-field issues don’t detract from the beautiful game.

But with the spectre of the Qatari human rights record hanging over the World Cup, I asked McGeehan whether he believes it would affect the Word Cup.

He said: “I think it’s already had an effect in the sense that it has done serious reputational harm to Qatar. Will it result in meaningful labor reforms? I think that’s possible but by no means certain or even probable.”

And McGeehan believes that FIFA are not the people we should be looking to for a solution.

He said: “I’ve been working on this issue since 2005, so the long-view of the issue has taught me that skepticism is the wisest default position.

“Of course it’s possible that there will be reform, but we’ll need more criticism and more public calls for reform.

“What we can say for sure is that the solution does not lie with FIFA, who up until now have proven themselves either incapable or unwilling to take this issue seriously.”

Whereas it may be easy to criticise the Qatari’s involved in these violations of human rights – and rightly so – it would be remiss for the blame to be shifted off FIFA completely.

Not only was the 2022 World Cup bidding processes seemingly gravely flawed,  but FIFA’s deafening silence when it comes to the human rights speaks for itself.

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And finally, to highly the attitude toward the situation in Qatar, I will leave the final word to the once-great German World Cup winning captain, Franz Beckenbauer, who of course is himself now under investigation for fraud and money laundering:

“I have not seen a single slave in Qatar. I don’t know where those reports come from.

“I have been to Qatar many times and therefore have a different view, which, I believe, is more realistic.”

Make of that what you will.

Featured Photo Credit © 2010 Samer Muscati for Human Rights Watch