A Red Card for FIFA: Human Rights Violations in Qatar

FIFA’s great scandal started in May 2015, with an appropriately scandalous beginning– a raid on a Swiss luxury hotel and the arrest of several FIFA executives. The arrests were followed by a ban of two years on FIFA’s former president, Sepp Blatter. Official investigations were also launched to assess potential corruption in the 2014 World Cup. The scandal did not stop there. Given the mistrust created by FIFA decision-making, allegations of corruption have implicated the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and threats have been made to strip the bid winners, Russia and Qatar, of their hosting rights.

By far the most serious issue to come to light around the World Cup has been the exposition of systemic human rights abuses in the construction of Qatar’s world cup. An 80-page report, written by Amnesty and published in early 2016, details human rights violations including withholding of passports and ‘squalid’ working and living conditions. In 2013, more than 180 workers died and many have been injured due to unsafe working environments. The kafala system also prevents workers from changing employment or leaving without their employer’s permission, thus trapping workers in dangerous situations. Amnesty called on sponsors to pressure FIFA into enforcing better working and living conditions; they also highlighted that they have been documenting workers’ abuse related to the World Cup for five years without significant change. Following the report, the International Labour Organization launched their own investigation, and found similar issues. They subsequently issued a warning: Qatar must improve its treatment of workers or face a formal UN inquiry, which could lead to economic sanctions. Though some changes have been made, the overall situation remains concerning.

Ryan Fung

Image courtesy of Ryan Fung, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Most recently, a Dutch trade union and a Bangladeshi worker are taking FIFA to court over the alleged conditions of labourers for the World Cup. Nadim Shariful Alam was forced into 18-months harsh labour upon arrival in Qatar. His passport was also taken from him, and when he later earned too little to pay off his recruitment fee, he was deported. He is suing for 9000 pounds, but if successful this case could set the precedent for thousands of similar claims. The suit is intended to force FIFA to regulate Qatar’s treatment of workers.

In response to pressure from activist groups, Coca Cola and Visa have published statements emphasizing their commitment to human rights and calling on both FIFA and Qatar to deal with human rights issues. Yet calling for change is as far as they will go; they are unlikely to pull sponsorship. The World Cup is simply too lucrative.

These labour violations might seem to be Qatar’s issue, but FIFA should not escape accountability. To better understand this, it must be noted that FIFA is a fiercely independent organization. In a 2011 interview, the Director of Member Associations and Development discussed political interference, stating that: “FIFA has the mandate to control association football worldwide, in all its aspects”– and that the organizations they delegate to, the national associations, must be entirely independent of government or official influence. Any breach in this could mean suspension. As such, it establishes itself firmly as an independent transnational organization.

Furthermore, FIFA has a large degree of financial independence. Sugden and Tomlinson call it a mixture of an international nongovernmental organization and an offshore financial centre, due to its financial autonomy and its lack of accountability or visibility. While it does still have financial allegiances– it must cater to European football associations, for example, because they make the most significant economic impact– it retains more flexibility than other transnational organizations, which are directly dependent on states’ funding. Part of this is due to the fact that, as Latin American football demonstrates, playing ability plays a significant role in the World Cup, and thus in FIFA, differentiating FIFA from organizations like the UN where the economic and political elements are supreme. Furthermore, each state gets its own vote in FIFA’s decision-making, thus allowing no one state or region to entirely dominate.

Meier and Garcia identify FIFA as engaging in Transnational Private Regulation (TPR), in which non-state actors ‘establish rules and standards of behaviour in a distinct issue area’, because it sets rules for governments and football associations. It maintains power in part by acting as a market regulator, determining states’ access to international football competitions. Its financial independence and regulating power thus allow it significant and ‘exceptional’ governance capabilities, which allow it to successfully confront national governments to preserve it autonomy and power.

FIFA thereby serves as a powerful example of the growing role of transnational organizations on the world stage. It is able to not only keep powerful multinational corporations like Coca-Cola invested due to its financial power but can also influence governments and even affect domestic issues such as their labour laws. In past years, we have seen FIFA interact with both governments, such as the United States during the high-level arrests of FIFA executives, and other nongovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International, Coca-Cola, and the International Labour Organization. FIFA’s authority demonstrates the growing ability of transnational actors to play central roles in international governance.

It also raises questions about the appalling situation in Qatar. Given FIFA’s regulatory abilities, the on-going issue in Qatar is inexcusable. As the lawyer for the Dutch suit pointed out: “How difficult would it be for them to say that all companies that don’t pay adequately, that force people to remain in the country when they want to leave, will face large fines?” It should not take the potential costs of lawsuits, or the threat of sponsors withdrawing, for them to take action.

For an organization that claims it is committed to human rights, FIFA has shown a serious lack of initiative in ensuring that the states it collaborates with respect those rights. If transnational organizations want the power of governance and recognition as actors on the international stage, then they must also be held accountable for their actions. FIFA’s lagging action in the face of human rights violations shows that they, at least, are more interested in power than accountability.