In May 2022, a good six months before the beginning of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Sacha Deshmukh, executive director of Amnesty International UK, said that “football can afford to do the right thing here”. The tournament will run until 18 December, and one imagines organizers would hope that it be seen as providing a positive lead-in to the Christmas period.
Raphael Molter is a political scientist and writer who works on a materialist critique of football, among other topics.
Translated by Ryan Eyers and Rowan Coupland for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have for many years been reporting on the catastrophic living conditions for migrant labourers in Qatar, and are demanding that FIFA and national football associations set up a 400-million-euro reparations fund in order to compensate — at least financially — the workers who laboured under such conditions, along with the families of those who died during the preparations for the World Cup.
In reality, such a figure is only a token gesture: FIFA will earn around 5.7 billion euro from the World Cup in Qatar, and already holds around 1.3 billion in financial reserves. But what should be done in light of the outrage and sense of powerlessness triggered by the conditions reported in Qatar?
Racism Upholds the Ruling Order — Even in Qatar
Amidst calls for financial compensation and a boycott of the World Cup, the protests continue, heightening pressure and making it clear that things cannot simply remain the same. But what does that mean exactly?
Despite the many protests and German society’s high level of sensitivity to the issue (according to a study by infratest dimap, two-thirds of those polled were in favour of the German men’s football team boycotting the World Cup), there has also been evidence of racism in discussions around the topic. In this sense, the term “sportswashing”, which has been used to define Qatar’s interest in major sporting events, does have a racist element to it, and serves to delegitimize in advance the interventionist behaviour of Qatar and other states on the Arabian Peninsula.
Fundamentally, however, there is nothing uniquely objectionable about such behaviour — the difference this time lies solely in the fact that instead of Western politicians such as Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron standing to benefit from a sporting event, it is Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. They all act according to a similar script, and if talk is once again about how the basic actions of the Qatari state and its actual treatment of over two million migrant workers is inhumane, then it is worth remembering that there is something behind the image of Qatar as a “rogue state” that does not quite add up.
We see this in the narrative of the inhumane states of the Gulf region, and the connections made between Islam and authoritarian regimes, beheadings, and stonings, all of which are positioned as being in opposition to the constitutionally enshrined principles of the West. Consequently, a subconscious image quickly emerges of a need to tame these “savages” seeking to use sport to gain greater influence.
No legal protection for people from the LGBTQI+ community, a regressive social climate that is strongly shaped by religion: in many places, human rights are nothing more than a utopian ideal — including in the Global North, where the notion that it has the moral high ground in this regard is not nearly as true as many would like to believe. If we are willing to point the finger at Qatar, then we should be equally as vocal when the next FIFA World Cup is held in Mexico, Canada, and the United States in 2026. As core members of the supposedly enlightened West, both the US and Canada have so many skeletons in their respective closets that the question of a potential boycott would be as valid then as it is with respect to Qatar now.
Of course, it is true that comparisons and whataboutism rarely simplify such matters. However, nations who first achieved their territorial sovereignty through the systematic eradication of Indigenous populations and who today continue to pursue neo-colonial and racist policies are hardly paragons of universal conceptions of morality and ethics.
At the same time, racism against people from the Arabian Gulf is not something that simply originates from our natural instincts and which can only be combatted by means of education and a strong civil society. In his book Stamped from the Beginning, anti-racism activist and historian Ibram X. Kendi explains that racism should be understood as an ideological basis for economic exploitation or the retention of power. Racism provided both the ideological and cultural justification for the enslavement and exploitation of people read as black, and continues to be used to justify why the Qatari state’s geopolitical influence must be restricted. This is driven by the interests of those who would seek to preserve the social relations that currently surround us — that is to say, the global system of capitalism in its current form.
Sticking Sand in Our Heads?
What, then, is to be done? Should we simply stick our heads in the sand, or, as German footballer Lukas Podolski once incorrectly (albeit aptly) formulated it, stick sand our heads?
Or perhaps we should use our own criteria to determine whether Qatar is or is not in fact worse than the US and Canada in order to warrant designating Qatar as a rogue state, whereas Western countries are at least supposed to be engaged in addressing injustices. Such an assessment does not entail occupying the moral high ground but rather demonstrates how messed up our world is.
This world, dominated by global capitalism, accordingly finds itself in a state of constant contradiction between the pretence of political liberalism, which in a moderated form aligns itself towards freedom and equality and sees democracy as the social ideal, and economic liberalism, whose driving imperative is the maximization of profit and is characterized by its hierarchical order and restrictions placed on democratic co-determination in the economic sphere, along with a kind of genial social Darwinism that has little to do with freedom and equality. These intrinsic constraints create problems wherever we care to look.
Instead of taking the moral high ground and calling for boycotts in a specific situation while turning a blind eye in contexts that are slightly less bad (because to do otherwise would be too complicated), there is a better, more productive approach available to us: criticize what actually exists in reality and then figure out the underlying causes.
If such an approach is taken, then Qatar is no longer the sole rogue state on the Arabian Peninsula and the US the bringer of democracy; then, an examination of the numerous problems that exist would crystallize into a wider-reaching critique of the actual state of our world. Only out of such a critique will something better come to be, both on a large and a small scale.
Thousands Suffered for the World Cup
Capitalism forces all people without alternative financial means into work: 99.9 percent of the global population, meaning over 8 billion people, possesses only 19 percent of global wealth, and are thus forced to work for a wage or salary. The supposed freedom to choose one’s work is more of a double freedom, for we are permitted to sell our labour power not only because we are free — we are forced to sell our labour power in order to make ends meet. What is one supposed to do, then, when there is no work available where one lives or when much better wages are offered somewhere else?
The neoliberal variant of modern labour migration is distinguished above all by its new form: induced by global supply chains and the greater general mobility that shapes the modern world, people themselves, dependent as they are on being able to sell control over their labour power, also become more mobile.
Take Nepal, for instance: a country of over 29 million inhabitants, around 1 million of whom are registered as unemployed, and in which around 400,000 young people reach working age each year. Because there is always a fresh influx of young people into the national labour market, despite there already not being enough jobs, in recent years many young Nepalese have sought employment abroad, which has had a noticeable impact on Nepal’s GDP. Around a quarter of Nepal’s total overall GDP consists of remittances from abroad. Young Nepalese workers primarily earn their money working jobs that require little in the way of qualifications, and largely seek such work in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in Malaysia and Kuwait.
Be it Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates, economic migrants are an essential part of the labour market. One figure illustrates this particularly clearly: around 2.7 million people live in Qatar, but less than 300,000 are Qatari citizens with full legal rights. Around 2.4 million people immigrated to Qatar after being hired and promised work; roughly 400,000 of these came from Nepal and largely work as untrained labourers. According to Nepalese union organizer Smritee Lama, this means that they exist “on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy that governs the more than two million migrant workers”.
The labour migration to Qatar is concentrated on two essential economic sectors — the construction sector and the services sector — in which pay is extremely low, working conditions are catastrophic, and in which there is almost no observing of occupational safety standards.
Stuck between Wage Theft and Hopelessness
Once they have arrived in Qatar, those who have newly migrated do not find themselves presented with tolerable living conditions, nor do they at least receive a wage high enough to support some of their family members back home. Systematic wage theft is something we experience in many of the Gulf states. Agreed-upon wages are not paid, and subsequent strikes do not result in anything tangible: this is hardly a problem of certain individual states who have a bad reputation. Wage theft is practiced both because it is possible and because it is a systemic function of capitalism, which operates according to the principle of capital accumulation, and to which higher wages always present a problem.
We have also experienced job cuts and rationalization at the hands of German companies. This describes the fundamental problem with capitalism: labour is and must be devalued. For this reason, the working conditions in Qatar and elsewhere are not entirely different from one another, since they function under the same basic conditions present in capitalism: a company acquires control of a worker’s labour power for a certain time period, with a certain wage paid in return. This occurs under varying levels of state regulation and depends on the level of organization and conflict-readiness amongst workers, who must be prepared to stand up and fight for their rights (this is what is meant by the term “class struggle”).
Thus, in Germany a full-time job is structured and regulated around a 40-hour working week. In Qatar, however, there are almost no legal standards pertaining to labour, which means that business owners can effectively extort workers by demanding that they work more hours for the same pay, with the state barely bothering to keep tabs on working conditions. These are excellent conditions for capitalists — this is not meant as a moral judgement, however, for the laws of the market dictate this orientation towards profit, along with its concrete repercussions for workers.
It is not really an option to simply speak out against these general rules, despite what some would wish to believe. Wage labour and the necessity of money to finance life’s essentials such as rent and food are not things that we have any kind of choice over — they are the logical consequence of a society structured along capitalist lines.
Despite this, much uproar has been caused by stories of unregulated working conditions and structural wage theft through non-payment related to previously completed contracts. A few years ago, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and some other unions were already loudly criticizing the conditions in Qatar, leading to pressure being put on the country on the international stage. This pressure even led to the implementation of some reforms and small improvements: a minimum wage was instituted, and the previously existing Wages Protection System was improved — but only on paper. All these changes can essentially be ignored by companies when there are enough legal loopholes to circumvent them and when they are not even required to issue workers with payslips.
It is for this reason that the Migrant Forum in Asia started a campaign entitled “Justice for Wage Theft” which called for an international claims commission, a compensation fund, and the strengthening of national legal systems. Despite this, however, instances of violations only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and indeed even worsened in severity. What’s more, Qatar has ratified five of the ILO’s original eight (now expanded to 11) fundamental labour conventions. Did this lead to a cessation of wage theft? Of course not.
Reparations Aren’t Enough, but They’re a Start
Despite everything, can the Migrant Forum in Asia nevertheless achieve some kind of redress? Their list of demands makes clear that they require the political intervention of the Global North — states that must be seen to be on their side ideologically, but ones who when it comes down to brass tacks will act to safeguard the capitalist system just as much as Qatar.
The Global North needs new growth markets like Qatar, in order that their companies — which in the case of Qatar are primarily German and French — can continue to run at a profit. And the fundamental decision between just and fair work everywhere and the capitalist necessity of capital accumulation has already been made, and will continue to be made in the same way, for the system is more important than the fate of a few individuals, even if in this case it is the fate of the 300,000 Nepalese working in Qatar.
This must not and cannot mean, however, that union organizing is doomed to fail from the outset. In fact, quite the opposite is true: all worker protection reforms, the minimum wage, and collective bargaining outcomes are the result of workers’ struggle.
If we really want something to change in Qatar, then the FIFA World Cup must also be used to strengthen union-based and migrant coalitions in Qatar, to provide them with practical support, and to forge connections with them. A working person in Germany has much more in common with an economic migrant in Qatar than they do with professional footballs tars like Leon Goretzka.
Thus football fans in Germany must push for change, and for compensation, in order that the first step be taken: to see and acknowledge the human suffering that has occurred. Football associations must also be forced to act. A compensation fund would be a step in the right direction.