The Qatar World Cup: The importance of human rights due diligence

9 minute read
26 January 2023


The human rights issues around the 2022 World Cup dominated headlines in the run-up to the tournament. However, these slightly faded into the background amid the drama on the pitch. Now that the last goal has been scored and we have our new world champions, many will be starting to reflect on the controversy in the run-up.

In this article, we consider some of those issues and how they provide lessons on the importance of human rights due diligence for companies more generally.

Ever since FIFA's decision in 2010 to award Qatar the right to host the 2022 World Cup (a decision which itself attracted controversy) the spotlight has shone with increasing intensity on the human rights situation in the Gulf state.

Qatar embarked on a massive construction programme including several new stadiums to hold the matches, a new airport, a new metro system and a network of new roads to move people around, and around 100 new hotels to accommodate teams and fans.

The issues

Given the extent of that building programme, it is perhaps unsurprising that the major focus of criticism has been the treatment of workers in Qatar. The population of Qatar is quite small – around 1.6 million in December 2010. The current population is somewhere around 2.69 million. However, of that, only around 15% of the total population are citizens. The population comprises a huge proportion of migrant workers with the majority coming from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and the Philippines.

In common with many of its neighbours in the Gulf, Qatar used a kafala system of sponsorship for migrant workers. Under that system workers often had to pay large sums to secure jobs before travelling to the country, and could not bring their families with them. Once there, they were not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without the permission of their employers.

The level of control that employers exercised over their migrant workforce inevitably led to problems, with many workers complaining of excessive working hours, dangerous conditions, inadequate living conditions, confiscation of their passports and withholding of pay.

Following a number of critical reports of worker abuse and exploitation by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), trades unions and human rights experts, the kafala system was abolished on paper in 2016 with other reforms to labour laws following from an agreement with the International Labour Organisation in 2017. A scheme was also set up to reimburse workers who had paid illegal recruitment fees.

However, despite those reforms, Amnesty International points to continuing exploitation. It reports that enforcement of the rights enshrined in the new laws is inadequate and that workers are still dependent on their employers, trade unions remain outlawed and thousands continue to face exorbitant recruitment fees, unpaid wages, unsafe working and living conditions, forced labour and sometimes insurmountable barriers to changing jobs.

Although most of the attention has focused on the treatment of migrant workers, other human rights issues have also been highlighted. For example, homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and there have been concerns over the possible treatment of LGBTQ+ fans and players. In 2020, Qatar confirmed that it would allow rainbow flags in its stadiums in line with FIFA's guidelines. However, in April 2022, Qatar's senior security chief stated that rainbow flags could be taken off fans 'for their own protection' and indeed it was the case that some fans were asked by stadium security to remove rainbow hats and other items. Indeed, FIFA drew controversy itself by declaring that players that wore a 'OneLove' armband, in support of LGBTQ+ issues, would be given an automatic yellow card. Notably, before the tournament England's Harry Kane insisted that he would wear his 'OneLove' armband despite threats of fines from FIFA, but eventually had to remove it for England's first game against Iran, citing FIFA pressure on the English FA.

In addition, there have also been incidents where journalists reporting on human rights abuses have been intimidated. In relation to the treatment of workers, there were also allegations – reported by the Guardian, the Independent and others – that at least one whistleblower was tortured while in prison.

Failures to conduct due diligence

Qatar's use of a large and vulnerable migrant workforce is well known and its human rights record has, for many years, attracted controversy. That those issues would be relatively clear to anyone conducting the most cursory investigation underlines the failure by FIFA and various other third parties to conduct any real due diligence in relation to how Qatar might secure appropriate treatment of workers, fans and others in relation to the World Cup.

In relation to FIFA, Amnesty International points out that in FIFA's 38-page evaluation of Qatar's bid for the tournament did not contain any reference to 'worker', 'labour' or 'human rights'. It also suggested that FIFA believed that its due diligence responsibilities could be outsourced to the Qatari government's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy which was responsible for delivering the infrastructure and other operations for the tournament. FIFA's failures with respect to due diligence were pointed out by its own Human Rights Advisory Board (created in 2017, seven years after the decision to make the award to Qatar).

There are examples of the Supreme Committee and other Qatari government entities involved in delivery failing in their due diligence. For example, Amnesty International points to a failure to conduct due diligence when contracting companies to provide private security guards. Some security guards employed by the companies described conditions akin to forced labour.

National football associations were called out by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHHRC) at the beginning of last year for their failure to conduct due diligence on the human rights issues of their choice of hotels and other facilities. The English FA responded to the BHHRC to say that it did conduct due diligence and required its partners to meet specified standards regarding workers' rights.

The BHHRC also asked multinational hotel brands operating hotels in Qatar about their due diligence on recruitment agencies and other business partners. It found that the due diligence was patchy and rather shallow where undertaken, with an attempt to rely on contractual mechanisms to ensure compliance with standards rather than an attempt to understand any issues before contracting.

More widely, it noted that of 19 FIFA and World Cup sponsors it asked about human rights due diligence around the tournament, only four responded. However, some brands did later support calls – thus far unheeded – for FIFA to establish a fund to compensate migrant workers and their families for human rights contraventions.

Had better due diligence been undertaken at all levels, issues would fairly easily have been uncovered and either a different host chosen, or stringent requirements put in place and monitored appropriately to ensure that rights were respected. The latter would have been particularly effective if FIFA and other third parties had taken a clear and consistent line in that regard.

Instead, FIFA has spent the years since 2010 being subject to a steady stream of criticism as more and more issues were uncovered by human rights organisations and journalists. When those issues started to emerge it was criticised for being slow to respond, and relatively ineffectual – no doubt in the face of a recalcitrant Qatar and because it had left itself with insufficient levers at its disposal.

Companies should take note.

Human rights due diligence is the keystone of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights (the UNGPs) because unless a company understands the salient human rights issues it faces, it cannot put itself in a position to deal with them. The influence of the UNGPs are increasingly being felt in legislation around the world, including the EU's proposed directive on human rights and environmental due diligence.

If you would like to discuss human rights due diligence for your company, please do feel free to contact us.

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