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Cornell International Law Journal Online

Killing In the Game of: Holding Qatar Responsible For Migrant Worker Abuse, Vol. 56.1

Evangeline Charles

27 Aug 2023

FIFA stands for discipline, respect, fair-play, not just on the field of play, but in our society as well.”

At the start of the twentieth century, Qatar was famous for something that may seem unfathomable today—pearl diving. Then it struck oil. Once known as the poorer neighbor of the other Saudi countries, Qatar is now seen as an important geopolitical rival. Naturally, taking the football world by storm and winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup was the next step in its move to reach global stardom. However, this winning bid may have tarnished Qatar’s transformative rags-to-riches story.

Qatar has been accused of bribing FIFA officials to swing the vote in its favor and its transgressions do not end here. In a bid to make itself out to be a gracious host, Qatar undertook a massive nation-building project that was seen as a brazen display of opulence at best and a catastrophe from a human rights perspective at worst, with thousands of migrant workers being exploited while Qatar reaps the benefits.

The global community has many recourses to addressing human rights violations using international law. FIFA also has tremendous bargaining power and can demand that host countries improve local labor conditions. Further, Qatar has a lot to gain from acknowledging and remedying its lack of migrant worker rights now that it is under intense global scrutiny. This article analyzes the effectiveness of these various alternatives.

The Bid and The Ask

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is the governing body of football—the most popular sport in the world with over five billion fans. FIFA was founded in 1904 and is older and has more member associations than the United Nations.

Members of FIFA compete in a quadrennial event known as the FIFA World Cup. Hosting the World Cup can boost a nation’s economy by attracting tourists. This surge in tourism brings along with it hotel stays, job creation, and above-average spending at local restaurants and businesses. However, landing a bid to become a host nation is a decade-long process. Countries submit bidding documents and make a presentation to FIFA’s twenty-two-member Executive Committee. The Executive Committee then holds a closed meeting and conducts a secret vote to pick the winning bid.

Despite the short-term boost to the host country’s tourism, the long-term costs are a cause for concern. Most countries hosting a World Cup spend tens of billions on preparations, developing infrastructure, building hotels and so on. Most of that is often not recouped, at least not in terms of hard cash. FIFA also demands a tax exemption from host governments and asks host governments to assume full responsibility—including the cost—for the World Cup and its related events.

On a local level, the excitement of the World Cup can quickly cool off in the face of abrupt change, the alienation of low-income laborers and residents, and aggressive inflation. Countries are also left to deal with debt and with “white elephant structures” after the tournament ends. This coupled with FIFA’s exacting infrastructural and commercial standards pushes countries to drop out of the bidding process.

The Qatar Quotient

In 2010, the tiny desert nation of Qatar shocked the world when FIFA announced that it won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Qatar was an unlikely host nation candidate due to its size—it is the smallest nation to host the World Cup. Not only did the country need eight stadiums to accommodate the tournament’s sixty-two matches, but Qatar also needed to come up with housing options and training facilities for each of the thirty-two qualifying teams. Space is so tight that some of the stadiums also doubled as practice fields. The World Cup is typically held in the summer, which makes Qatar an even more odd choice as host nation. Summers in Qatar can exceed forty degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). This prompted FIFA to recommend that Qatar host a shorter World Cup over the cooler months of November and December.

These factors raised allegations that Qatar bribed officials to secure votes. Almost every one of the twenty-two-member FIFA Executive Committee who participated in the vote has been accused of or charged with corruption. In the midst of these allegations, Qatar also faced intense global criticism over its treatment of migrant workers. Back when it won the bid, Qatar’s population was 1.7 million, only three hundred thousand of whom were citizens. To satisfy the increased labor demand for large-scale infrastructure projects, Qatar relied on migrant workers from South and South-East Asia, including Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. However, Qatar’s inadequate labor standards have led to the exploitation of these workers through the draconian kafala system.

The Kafala System

The kafala system defines the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor, or kafeel, which is usually their employer. It has been used in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries including Qatar since the 1950s. Under this system, the state gives local individuals or companies sponsorship permits to employ foreign laborers. The sponsor covers travel expenses and provides housing, often in dorm-like accommodations. Rather than hiring an individual directly, sponsors sometimes use private recruitment agencies located in other countries to find workers and facilitate their entry to the host country.

The system usually falls under the jurisdiction of interior ministries rather than labor ministries, so workers often have no protection under the host country’s labor laws. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and denies them such rights as the ability to enter a labor dispute process or join a union.

Migrant workers in Qatar consistently complain that they do not receive the salary they are promised. After working long hours in extreme heat, migrant construction workers typically live in close quarters and are required to use unsanitary bathrooms. Many workers have their passports withheld during their employment, in trafficking-like practices. Finally, workers often find themselves trapped in an exploitative system because they must pay back very high recruiting fees if they want to quit, further reducing their chances of returning to their home country, as well as any prospect of profit.

As a result of working in these severe conditions, migrant workers face risk of serious injuries or even death. There have been conflicting reports on the number of migrant workers who have died as a result of World Cup related work projects. Qatari officials recently stated that the death toll is somewhere between 400 to 500. The Guardian reported last year that the number is more than 6500. Despite these numbers, the consensus is that one death is too many. This leaves open questions about whether international law can be used to hold Qatar responsible for migrant worker abuse leading up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Using International Law

Private Action: The International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization (ILO) was founded in 1919 under the League of Nations. In 1946, it became a special agency of the United Nations. It grew out of labor and social movements which culminated in widespread demands for social justice and higher living standards for the world’s working people. ILO is based on a tripartite structure that is unique to the United Nations. It promotes dialogue and cooperation between governments, employers, and workers in the formulation of labor standards. The ILO’s Constitution allows it to institute legal proceedings against member states.

Qatar is a member of the ILO and has ratified several conventions since 1976, including the Discrimination and Forced Labour Conventions. Among the Conventions not ratified by Qatar are the ones related to union formation and collective bargaining rights. If Qatar violates any conventions that it has ratified, the ILO may establish a “Commission of Inquiry”. This is an investigative procedure to ascertain all the facts and make recommendations to the member state accused of violations. If a member state still refuses to comply, then the ILO can take action under Article 33 of its Constitution. However, Article 33 does not outline a clear penalty or any consequences for violations. It only states that further recommendations will be made to take action and secure compliance. Absent an enforcement mechanism on the part of the ILO, Qatar’s violation of ILO conventions does not have tangible consequences in international law.

Frustrated with the labor situation in Qatar, international unions including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) issued several formal complaints to the ILO. The 2014 complaint specifically targeted the kafala system and the inadequacy of local labor laws to combat the exploitation of migrant workers. This triggered an ILO vote to send a High-Level Tripartite Commission to Qatar to put pressure on the country to end its system of modern slavery. After a period of intense negotiations, Qatar agreed to enter into a ‘Technical Cooperation Programme’ in 2017 to enact major labor reforms. The ILO then closed the complaint against Qatar, which means that it will not set up the Commission of Inquiry to investigate the exploitation. The first phase of the programme started in 2017. The second phase runs from July 2021 until the end of 2023. Changes implemented under the programme include among other things the freedom to change jobs, a non-discriminatory minimum wage, access to labor courts, and prohibited working hours to protect workers against the summer heat.

Despite these reforms, it is worthwhile to note that Qatar’s cooperation coincided with its need to clean up its image when it was under intense global scrutiny. Harsh labor practices are still widespread among workers who are still barred from forming unions. Workers worry about what will happen after the World Cup ends in December, when the international spotlight moves on and employers slash their payrolls. How the slow labor reform process coupled with the ILO’s weak sanctions could affect Qatar ‘s migrant workforce once the world has moved on from the World Cup remains to be seen.

State Action: Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts

The International Law Commission (ILC) was set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 1949 to codify and progressively develop international law. In 2001, the ILC completed its Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA), a project on which it had been working for more than forty years. The aim of the articles is to codify the generally applicable rules of State responsibility.

Certain practices and policies of some States could amount to a breach of the prohibition on slavery, forced labor and human trafficking, and constitute an internationally “wrongful act” under ARSIWA. However, wrongful acts under ARSIWA must be attributable to the State and must also constitute a breach of an international obligation of the State.

Here, the Qatar government has created a loophole by claiming that its businesses committed migrant worker abuses rather than the Qatar government itself. In reality, millions of migrant workers came to Qatar after FIFA chose Qatar to host the World Cup, and these workers received sponsorships from the companies tasked with building the stadiums. Qatar failed to set up adequate legal protections for these workers. Even if Qatar’s government has not engaged in committing these abuses itself, Qatar could be held responsible for these actions under Article 9 of ARSIWA. Under Article 9, local business’ actions could meet the definition of “conduct carried out in the absence or default of the official authorities.” The realities of the kafala system create compelling evidence to hold Qatar responsible for migrant worker abuses under Article 9 of ARSIWA.

Article 30 of ARSIWA lays out remedies: the responsible state must “(a) to cease that act, if it is continuing; (b) to offer appropriate assurances and guarantees of non-repetition, if circumstances so require.”  While Qatar has promised to reform labor practices under the Technical Cooperation Programme with the ILO, Qatar may not be held responsible under ARSIWA if it reverts to former violations. 

According to Article 42, only a State is entitled, as an injured party, to invoke the responsibility of another State if the latter breaches obligations owed to the former or to the international community. There is no private right of action (right of parties other than the government to bring a lawsuit) outlined in ARSIWA. This coupled with many countries’ growing economic and geopolitical relationships with Qatar might preclude assignment of responsibility to Qatar under ARSIWA in any fora including the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice. In particular, India, Pakistan Nepal, and Bangladesh, where most migrant workers come from, have deep-rooted bilateral ties with Qatar and may not seek sanctions and risk severing these ties.

Passing the Ball to FIFA

FIFA’s monopoly over international football allowed the organization to wield tremendous political and market power. FIFA extracts large rents from countries hosting the World Cup. FIFA does not even pay taxes to host countries for in-country revenue since it demands and receives “diplomatic” status.

For instance, at FIFA’s request, the Brazilian government agreed to spend $11.3 billion in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and to change laws to meet FIFA’s demands. In 2003, Brazil enacted a statute that prohibited the sale and entry of alcohol into stadiums during soccer matches to address the ongoing problem of spectator violence. However, FIFA pushed for this law to be repealed as the World Cup inched closer. Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s General Secretary at the time stated, 

Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we’re going to have them. Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant but that’s something we won’t negotiate. . . the fact that we have the right to sell beer has to be a part of the law.”

Although politically unpopular, FIFA made it a priority to arm-twist Brazil to lift the ban because of Budweiser’s $22 million sponsorship to serve beer at the event. A “World Cup Law” or the Lei Geral da Copa was finalized by Brazil to reflect these compromises.

FIFA has also worked with trade unions in anticipation of the South African World Cup in 2010. With the help of BWI, South African trade unions managed to get FIFA on board with significant commitments for labor standards in construction sites for the 2010 World Cup. After numerous strikes, local union members and BWI met with FIFA, and FIFA promised to take the workers’ demands to the South African government, ultimately resulting in numerous inspections from union representatives to ensure continued attention to workers’ conditions.

Given this history, ITUC recognized the immense power FIFA holds and called on the organization to make demands in Qatar stating that “[if] FIFA demand Qatar abolish kafala and respect fundamental international rights, it will happen” ITUC also demanded that FIFA rerun its vote and launched a campaign to pressure FIFA to change the 2022 World Cup location to a place where workers rights are respected. Similar campaigns calling on FIFA to take action were initiated by Amnesty InternationalFIFA also adopted the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into its Statutes in 2016. In 2017, FIFA established a Human Rights Policy and in 2019, a joint “FIFA World Cup 2022 Sustainability Strategy” was established with Qatar. In the latter, FIFA and the Supreme Committee (the Qatar government wing overseeing the 2022 World Cup) committed to safeguarding the rights and welfare of workers engaged on World Cup sites and promoting their rights in projects and supply chains directly linked to the World Cup.

Nevertheless, in March 2021 Amnesty International addressed FIFA directly, calling for it to act to end all labor abuses in Qatar. In May 2022, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, BWI and a host of other organizations penned a joint open letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino demanding that FIFA match the $440 million World Cup Prize money to fund compensation programs for abused workers. FIFA responded by saying that it was implementing an “unprecedented due diligence process in relation to the protection of workers involved“. FIFA also later stated that it was open to the possibility of such a compensation fund. However, Qatar has rejected such a remedy.

Although FIFA has been less successful in wringing Qatar’s arm to implement its “World Cup Laws”, most of Qatar’s major labor law reforms have resulted from the negative backlash after it won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Indeed, the Qatari government has shown leadership in dismantling the kafala system

Keeping A Clean Sheet: Prioritizing Human Rights At Sporting Events

FIFA clearly has no problems getting into bed with authoritarian regimes: Benito Mussolini hosted the 1934 World Cup in an attempt to showcase the merits of Fascist Italy to the world while in 1978, the tournament was a tool to garner legitimacy for the military junta in Argentina. In the same ceremony that gave Qatar the rights to the 2022 event, another autocrat of questionable morality won the rights to the 2018 event in Russia.

If Qatar hoped that the World Cup would cast them in a positive light, they could not have been more wrong. The global spotlight was cast on Qatar’s questionable human rights record, their treatment of migrant workers and their institutionalization of homophobia. Instead of washing themselves clean, Qatar’s ruling regime came off looking dirtier than ever.

While international law has had some success in correcting human rights transgressions in this mega-sporting event, “world cup laws” prevail as the compelling catalyst to bring hosting countries into compliance with globally accepted human rights standards. 

Since sporting organizations wield tremendous soft power to induce host nations to comply for the sake of their international image, they could compliment this with the threat of sanctions. Specifically, they should be allowed to bring forward and arbitrate human rights violations in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). 

The CAS was founded in 1984 with the purpose of taking international sports disputes out of national courts and providing a highly specialized forum where these disputes could be heard and decided, quickly and inexpensively, according to a flexible procedure. While the CAS jurisdiction doesn’t explicitly cover human rights violations associated with a sporting event, its jurisdiction could be expanded to include these issues, especially in light of the international community relying enormously on the soft power of monopolistic sports organizations like FIFA whose prominent members have been unscrupulous.

Another prospect involves pro-democratic and pro-labor rights nations bringing sanctions against transgressors like Qatar in international fora like the United Nations Security Council. However, by doing so they risk severing their diplomatic ties with Qatar and having the sanctions vetoed by Qatar’s allies who are permanent members of the Security Council.

Finally, in a world where neither FIFA nor its bedfellows will institute reforms, pro-democratic countries and supranational unions like the EU could boycott participation in games hosted by anti-democratic countries. The EU only represents 27 nations, yet the World Cup would feel the impact of the EU’s absence.


While international law can be used to rectify draconian labor practices, the lack of enforcement mechanisms makes it an inadequate avenue for holding violators accountable. Relying on the soft power of organizations like FIFA is an option only when violators host major sporting events. This leaves victims of human rights abuses with very few options other than to wait for the public eye to be cast on them. It took a sporting event to shine the global spotlight on the kafala system—a seventy-year-old system which legitimized migrant worker abuse. Unprecedented labor reforms that started in Qatar can hopefully move to other GCC countries. Improving everyday life for migrant workers in the Gulf requires engaging both local stakeholders and the multiple actors and institutions involved in reproducing these systems.