Whilst the world’s attention is, rightly so, on the migrant workers who have paid the ultimate price for this event, FIFA’s shameful web of exploitation pre-dates Qatar’s involvement, and reaches far beyond the country’s borders.  Major sponsors who publicly condemned Qatar’s record on human rights, have looked the other way for decades at FIFA’s reliance on exploitative labour. This begs the question, is it easier for western companies to hold Qatar to account for human rights violations, than to look at their own complicity in decades of labour exploitation?

14th December 2022

The plight of migrant workers in Qatar is certainly confronting. When Qatar won the right to host the World Cup 2022 back in 2010, a gargantuan project began to build the infrastructure needed to host such an event, including hotels, transport, and solar-powered air-cooling stadiums. Qatari companies sponsored thousands of migrant workers from countries like Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, with the promise of well-paid work, which would enable them to support their families back home.

Workers soon realised they were trapped, needing their sponsors permission to change jobs or leave the country. They endured long gruelling hours of hard labour in extreme heat of up to 50 degrees Celsius. Conditions of modern slavery prevailed as workers lived in squalid conditions, had wages withheld, and passports confiscated.

Just before the World Cup kicked off, many workers were sent back to their home countries before their contracts ended, without being paid their full salaries or allowances. For workers who paid exorbitant fees of up to $4,300 to recruiters, this meant going back empty-handed, or indebted. Not all workers will return home though, in 2021 the Guardian reported that 6,500 migrant workers from five countries died during the decade since Qatar won the right to host the World Cup.

Major sponsors, media and fans who were quick to condemn the conditions faced by migrant workers in Qatar, are often reluctant to address the same issues that are woven into the fabric of the World Cup. Perhaps it is not as easy when the finger of blame points to those who are closer to home.

Last month, a media investigation highlighted that garment workers producing England football shirts for Nike are paid just over $1 per hour. Kits worn by players such as Harry Kane and Jack Grealish are made in low-wage factories around the world. In many cases workers are from the same countries where migrant workers in Qatar originate, and suffer the same abusive conditions.

Poverty wages and unsafe factories prevail in the garment industry. Workers from impoverished communities are often recruited both domestically and internationally to work in industrial zones where employers take advantage of favourable trade agreements.  Recruitment fees and accommodation costs are taken out of monthly salaries, severely limiting workers’ earning potential. Workers are often deceived about pay and conditions, and are trapped when their passports are confiscated by employers.

Despite publicly supporting calls for a compensation fund to be set up for migrant construction workers in Qatar, official FIFA sponsor adidas is currently under fire from labour rights advocates for persistent wage theft, union busting and mass lay-offs in its own supply chain.  It is estimated that workers from eight adidas supplier factories in Cambodia are owed $11.7 million in unpaid wages. In 2020, 1,020 workers from Hulu Garment, an adidas supplier, were tricked into signing voluntary resignations, so that the factory could avoid paying $3.6 million in severance. In October 2019, workers at Jeans Knit, an adidas supplier factory in India, went on strike when their workload doubled and those who could not keep up were fired. The factory fired 250 workers and harassed others, mostly migrant workers. Adidas failed to take prompt action to remedy the violations. Just last month, two thousand workers at Myanmar Pou Chen, an adidas shoe supplier factory, held a three-day strike over low pay. In response, 29 workers were fired, and union members targeted. These are just a handful of the worker rights violations in adidas supplier factories during the past decade.

The FIFA World Cup has been built on the exploitation of workers, and whichever way you look it is workers from the global South who are paying the price. This is not through lack of money: adidas spent $800 million to extend its sponsorship of the World Cup until 2030, Qatari officials estimate that the country has spent $200 billion on preparations, and FIFA itself will pay a prize pot of $440 million. There is plenty of money exchanging hands, but little will reach the workers who have made the World Cup possible.

This exploitation is by design rather than by accident, whether it is Qatari construction companies, or official sponsors like adidas. Companies pursue the cheapest labour around the globe to maximise their profits. Workers with limited employment options are actively recruited from the same low-wage economy countries. Trade unions are repressed at the earliest opportunity, dashing any chance that workers have of securing better conditions or wages.

The tragic loss of life involved in constructing the FIFA World Cup means that it is too late for many workers. Through its inaction, FIFA and its sponsors have allowed ‘the beautiful game’ to be stained with blood. But it is not too late for the Qatari Government, FIFA and major sponsors such as adidas to take action to mitigate the impact on workers. A coalition of human rights groups are calling on FIFA and Qatar to provide financial compensation to workers and their families. At the same time, the Clean Clothes Campaign, along with a coalition of over 260 trade unions and labour rights groups is calling on major sports brands including adidas to negotiate with trade unions and sign a binding agreement on wages, severance, and labour rights. It is not too late for this to be a game of two halves for labour rights, if only powerful decision makers will finally put people before profits.

Spotlight on Adidas

As one of the worlds biggest sports brands, Adidas has a shocking record of wage theft, labour rights violations, and harassment in their supply chain. Workers are organising and speaking up to let the world know the real adidas.

Garment worker unions from across the world have come together to say enough is enough: It is time for adidas to sign a binding agreement on wages, severance, and the freedom to organise to ensure that workers in its supply chain are never again robbed of the money they’ve earned.

If adidas are willing to spend $800m sponsoring FIFA, why won’t they spend just 10 cents more per product to end wage theft in their supply chain?