A red card for FIFA

The following editorial appeared in Friday’s Washington Post:

As the World Cup kicked off in Brazil Thursday, its governing body found itself mired in controversy surrounding the tournament eight years down the road.

Allegations of bribery, sadly commonplace in soccer, have surfaced in Qatar’s selection as the 2022 World Cup host. More worrying are the human rights abuses committed in preparation for that tournament.

In constructing infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, migrant workers have been abused and exploited, investigations by the Guardian newspaper, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have shown. Hundreds of workers have died, and an estimated 4,000 may die by 2022 if nothing changes.

In apparent response, senior officials at FIFA, the governing association of soccer, are mulling a human rights criterion for choosing future host countries. FIFA’s spotty record of following its own rules does not give much hope that such a guideline would amount to much. If FIFA wants to show seriousness about human rights, it would do better to focus on the abuses in the country that it has selected and where it has real leverage.

Qatar has long mistreated migrant workers, whose legal status is tied to their employer. Under the system, workers are unable to switch jobs or leave the country without the employer’s permission. This has resulted in poverty, dangerous work conditions and exploitation that is “routine and widespread,” according to Amnesty International. Many hundreds of workers a year die in miserable conditions. One of the workers interviewed by Amnesty International was hit three or four times by his boss, with another repeatedly threatening to “cut” him. Such conditions now pervade the building of infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.

As these abuses have been exposed, FIFA has done next to nothing. It claimed to be working privately with Qatari officials to address the issue, but has shown little conviction, and, not surprisingly, made little progress.

The futility of its approach became clear after a senior FIFA official discussed worker rights with Qatari officials and said, in November 2011, that changes were on the way. Two years later, an Amnesty International report documented atrocious rights violations and unchanged conditions throughout 2012 and 2013. A few days after the report was released, the FIFA chief still insisted that Qatar was “on the right track.”

Last month, Qatar pledged it would reform some of its labor laws, allowing workers to leave the country freely. But the pledge came with no timetable or details. Bahrain in 2009 made reforms to its similar labor laws but the improvements were rarely enforced. Other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have promised to substantially change or abolish the system but have stalled on delivering.

FIFA should make Qatar’s hosting of the tournament contingent on true reforms. That would be worth a great deal more than another set of pretty guidelines.

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