Construction workers from Bangladesh on break near new highrise office buildings and hotels under construction in Doha, Qatar on 24 October 2010. Photo courtesy of Al Majalla

The Story of the 2022 FIFA World Cup: A Championship Built on Exploitation and Abuse in Qatar


 In 2010 Qatar was selected as the host for the upcoming FIFA World Cup. Preparation for the event highlighted and exacerbated widespread labor abuses and exploitation of migrant workers in the country. Despite international pressure, Qatar remains incapable and resistant to addressing the issues. 1,200 workers have died since the tournament announcement, and as many as 2,800 more could fall by 2022 if additional and outside action is not taken.[i]


Qatar is a destination and transit country for sex and labor trafficking. In exchange for exorbitant recruitment fees collected in violation of national and international law, brokers offer lucrative work, visas, and safe passage into Qatar from South Asia. Some recruiters are legitimate, but significant portions deceive their clients and flagrantly alter contracts after the fact. To minimize costs and maximize employee control, companies rely on the cheap workers from trafficking and forced labor. These victims endure twelve to fifteen-hour days in temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit as well as physical and psychological abuse from supervisors.[ii], [iii] Foreign construction workers reside in deplorable conditions at overcrowded work camps which lack clean drinking water access and adequate restroom facilities.[iv], [v] Qatar’s migrants face other threats including frequent passport confiscation by supervisors, irregular and delayed salary payments, and arbitrary restrictions on their right to leave. Separately these factors are of concern, but together they increase migrant vulnerability to severe forced labor.

So why does Qatar have such an issue with labor trafficking? Qatar has claim to the largest national gas field in the world and a massive GDP per capita but only a small domestic labor force. The population increased from 111,000 in 1970 to 1.6 million in 2010. This was due in large part to the arrival of foreign laborers in the 1980’s.[vi] The population continued to surge after the Cup was announced, ballooning to 2.6 million in 2018.[vii] Of that total, approximately 85% are migrants; the greatest proportion of any country.[viii] The majority work in construction and domestic services, though they are present in all sectors. In preparation for the Cup and its National Vision 2030, Qatar is investing in $200 billion US worth of commercial and government infrastructure projects across the country. This includes an entire 35 square km city for 200,000 people, Qatar’s first rail system, 110 hotels, and 8 technologically advanced stadiums.[ix] Responsibility for stadium construction oversight falls to the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy and project management is delegated from international corporations, like the U.S.-based CH2M Hill, to various subcontractors.[x]


There are four primary outcomes for labor rights and human trafficking in Qatar. This paper will frame these outcomes in terms of the U.S. State Department’s tier rating system. It will then discuss avenues for change and potential approaches. Actors and strategies will be assessed based upon their ability to influence outcomes and by the threats they pose. The actions of five major groups could influence the likelihood of each scenario coming to fruition. These include the Qatari government, intergovernmental organizations, external governments such as the United States, commercial entities, and non-governmental organizations. Possible approaches to achieve these outcomes range from suggestive to coercive and cooperative to adversarial.

The first possibility is that Qatar achieves Tier 1 status. Tier 1 countries have not necessarily completely eliminated human trafficking. Tier 1 refers to countries whose governments fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.[xi] While feasible, it is unlikely this will occur based on Amnesty International’s interviews and Qatar’s official statements in 2019.[xii] To achieve compliance with the TVPA, Qatar must make large improvements to its anti-trafficking efforts. Specifically, the Qatari government must vigorously investigate, prosecute, and extradite when appropriate human trafficking perpetrators and facilitators including their public officials.[xiii] Qatar seems interested in aspects of this, but has consistently refused to hold current and former bureaucrats accountable for their actions.[xiv]

The most likely possibility is that Qatar remains at Tier 2, fails to meet TVPA minimum standards, but continues making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance.[xv] Qatar will conceivably carry on low to modest improvements to investigations, prosecutions, and legislations. It remains possible, but less likely that Qatar will regress in its anti-trafficking efforts. The second most probable scenario is that Qatar will drop to Watch List status. Tier 2 Watch List countries do not fully meet TVPA minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance. Additionally, there is either a large or significantly increasing number of victims of severe trafficking, the country has failed to provide evidence of increasing efforts from the previous year, or a country’s significant efforts determination was based on commitments for future steps over the coming year.

There is an outside chance that Qatar will dramatically regress to a Tier 3 rating. Tier 3 describes countries who do not meet minimum standards and the government is no making significant efforts to do so.[xvi] Tier 3 countries receive US Aid restrictions, reduced access to American markets, and may be denied access to World Bank loans. This outcome is highly unlikely, but possible if the Qatari government and contractors become behind schedule or costs significantly exceed project budgets. In the face of increased outside pressure, subcontractors may resort to de facto slavery in order to reduce costs. Outside geopolitical circumstances that effect Qatar’s economy or immediate security could also aggravate the situation.

Qatar has not shied away from its past of traditional slavery. Bin Jelmood House, the first slavery museum in the region, was opened there in 2015.[xvii] Qatar has been open to education and awareness campaigns on human trafficking as well as funding victim services. Victim data was not reported, but it did pay $24.7 million US to the Aman Protection and Social Rehabilitation Center shelter for female workers who fled their sponsors as well as child and women victims of violence.[xviii] This period has been marked by more promises than action though. The Qatari government only conducted 149 total human trafficking investigations in 2017 and initiated prosecution on 109 cases of forced labor, but made zero convictions. 361 passport retention prohibition cases were also investigated, 53 referred, 48 prosecuted, but none were convicted. Legislating and merely discussing the problem does not solve it if investigative and enforcement mechanisms are ineffectual. Prosecutorial success is highly tied to the quality of inspections and investigations. Qatar should provide inspectors with appropriate technical skills including south Asian language expertise, increase total inspectors commensurate with total workers, and support rigorous inspections regimes.

The Kafala sponsorship system has been identified as a major factor in regional labor abuses. It relies upon the principle that non-nationals are untrustworthy and must be watched over. Kafala legally binds foreign workers to their employers. It restricts workers’ ability to change employers and even prevents them from leaving the country without sponsor authorization. Failure to report for work can result in arrest or deportation for absconding. Sponsoring employers are responsible for issuing and renewing residence permits. The system puts immense power in the hands of businesses, leaving workers vulnerable. Qatar has a reasonable interest in managing the large migrant population. The citizens remain concerned that expatriates could revolt and overtake the small nation or will violate their cultural norms. Yet Kafala may not be the most humane and effective approach to manage their concerns. Qatar should consider reforming its immigration work visa program and assess the likelihood of such a revolt coming to fruition.

The issue of labor abuses in Qatar cannot be addressed by it alone. Other countries can also influence events. Many of the identified issues occur in sending countries, not Qatar itself. Just as Qatar has a responsibility to ensure fair labor practices are enforced, sending countries have an obligation to protect their citizens from fraud and outright abuse. The most prevalent sending countries (India, Nepal, and Bangladesh) should consider better regulation of recruitment companies, compliance checks of these agencies, and notarizing requirements for contracts.[xix] Sending countries could consider temporary bans on migration to Qatar if these efforts do not prove effective. However, this has a questionable basis in international law and would drastically reduce remittances, which many sending countries rely upon.

Countries could consider boycott the tournament in protest of human trafficking. To be effective, countries need to rally not only one another but also corporate sponsors. The public, international, and corporate pressure may make Qatar dramatically increase its efforts to handle labor abuse claims. This would be a costly measure in terms of advertising campaigns and profit lost. It could potentially cause FIFA to reconsider the United States as the 2026 host. A boycott would set a strong precedent for future international sporting events, but it is unclear but doubtful that sufficient support exists for this strategy.

The U.S. is in a unique position to address labor trafficking in Qatar, especially leading up to the 2022 World Cup. The U.S. Department of State produces the gold-standard in human trafficking assessments with its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report. The U.S. has strong diplomatic relations with Qatar. The Department of State could take a supportive or confrontational approach to improving anti-trafficking in Qatar. The U.S. further has the funds and its Justice and Labor departments the expertise to improve Qatar’s prosecutorial and investigative capacity.

Many major sponsors of and contracting firms for the Cup are U.S. companies. Under the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the responsibility to respect human rights extends beyond the company’s activities to its relationships and contractors. U.S. Congress could weigh the costs and benefits of expanding the Alien Tort Statue of 1789 to include human rights violations by U.S. corporations abroad. Doing so would allow workers the right to sue in American courts if companies, contractors, or subcontractors violated basic, universally recognized labor rights.

If Qatar remains unable to address the issue of human trafficking, U.S. policymakers could take action into their own hands. Sanctions are generally considered ineffective to coerce states into policy changes, and it is unlikely that they would worsen conditions in this case.[xx], [xxi], [xxii], [xxiii] The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act may instead be leveraged against foreign companies that engage in severe labor abuses.[xxiv] Sufficiently high penal punishments have proven effective measures to deter corporations.[xxv] Seizing corporate earnings may change company calculus to comply with labor standards. There are potential downsides to this approach. The burden of proof necessary to institute these would mean such sanctions would be used in only the vilest of circumstances. U.S. companies may also face the risk of similar sanctions from other countries.

There are constraints and limitations to U.S. efforts. The current presidential administration and 114th Congress are generally opposed to pro-worker legislation and restrictions on corporate responsibility. Much like Qatar’s government, they may not view the level of labor abuses as rising to the scale of de facto slavery. Taking any punitive actions against the country could also affect our military operating capacity. Qatar is an important partner in the Global War on Terror as the CENTCOM forward headquarters, numerous electronic warfare units, and the Combined Air Operations Center for the Middle East all call the Al Udeid Air Base home.

Intergovernmental organizations have an important role to play in Qatar’s future. In January and November 2013, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) initiated complaints to the United Nations regarding Qatar’s alleged failure to abide by the Forced Labour Convention (1930).[xxvi] As a result, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Migrant Rights conducted an official visit to Qatar in 2013 to investigate the representation. The report was consistent with committee findings in the ITUC referral and independent research by other NGO’s.[xxvii] The ILO leveraged this case and international attention to convince Qatar to implement laws on exit permits and minimum wage of approximately $200 US per month. The new ILO office now serve as an important advisor on labor issues and future legislation needs. A follow-up investigation may be used to monitor Qatar’s compliance. Public release of the findings could demonstrate progress and identify areas for further improvement. The risk is low for this strategy, but the potential impact is high.

A little discussed avenue is the Gulf Cooperation Council. Member states may act as spoilers rather than assets to progress. The 2017 blockade resulted in monthly food and supply cost increases by 4.2% per month for Qatar.[xxviii] As operating expenses rise, subcontracts cut corners to maintain budgets. These tensions and ongoing refugee flows from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine prevent coordination with GCC states to eradicate labor trafficking. The labor abuses, modern slavery, and human rights concerns are not unique to Qatar either. In fact, taking steps to enforce labor trafficking laws is contrary to Middle East norms and a history of slave trading from South Asia. Across the region there are more than 20 million migrants working under the kafala system in construction and domestic labour fields.[xxix] All but two countries in the region are Tier 2 or lower with the majority being either Tier 3 or Watch List countries.[xxx]

The last category of influencers is nongovernmental organizations. As the organizing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) place is ensuring the tournament is ethically managed. FIFA’s Secretary General, Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, has significant experience with human rights issues as a former U.N. humanitarian and development program manager.[xxxi] Her recent focus is on bribery and corruption allegations, but FIFA could push to address human rights issues in Qatar. It is unlikely, but FIFA also has the authority to cancel the World Cup or revoke Qatar’s status. This would show a strong stance against human rights violations and draw major public awareness, but it has obvious costs. Cancellation may backfire upon FIFA though resulting in international boycotts of the organization, potential cancelation of sponsorships, and major revenue losses. The tournament could even go on without the organization.


This report analyzed multiple approaches to substantially improve Qatar’s anti-trafficking program to Tier 1 status by 2022. Qatari labor trafficking causes a litany of personal, social, economic, and security issues which affect social, economic, and security conditions. Continued progress requires sustained commitment at all levels. This will require a collaborative approach between private and public partners as well as the international community. FIFA and other IGO’s should continue to encourage Qatar to improve conditions and avoid coercive behaviors. Countries sending migrant laborers should work with Qatar to identify and prosecute fraudulent recruiting within their country. These must also explore contract verification measures such as public posting or technology enabled systems.

Current U.S. policy insufficiently leverages its position in Qatar to address pervasive labor trafficking within the construction sector. The U.S. should consider educational exchanges with and training from Department of Justice attorneys and FBI special agents to increase human trafficking prosecutions. The State Department should direct foreign service staff to push Qatar harder to make policy changes. The Trump Administration should consider imposing targeted sanctions against individuals and corporations which perpetrate, promote, or blatantly ignore human rights violations. Lastly, U.S. Congress should evaluate the effects of expanding the Alien Tort Statute.

Qatar’s government should invest in its inspection regimes and provide them with adequate training and foreign language skills to effectively determine if a crime was committed and build strong cases for prosecution. The country must eliminate tolerance of human trafficking in any form and by anyone – especially officials. The government ought to reform Kafala and put more control in the workers’ hands. This tournament does not just represent Qatar. As the first ever World Cup in the Middle East, Qatar’s actions reflect on the region at large. Failure to address human trafficking concerns besmirches Qatar’s achievements and casts a shadow on the World Cup. Ultimately, Qatar must choose for itself. Do they want the event to be remembered for being built on the back of abuse? Or do they want it to be a symbol of progress, humanity, and hope?

Works Cited

[i] International Trade Union Confederation. 2014. “The Case Against Qatar: Host of the FIFA 2022 World Cup.”

[ii] Pattisson, Pete. 2018. “Migrants claim recruiters lured them into forced labour at top Qatar hotel.” The Guardian.

[iii] Fisher, Nicole. 2018. “Qatar’s 2022 World Cup is Already a Human Trafficking Nightmare.” The Federalist.

[iv] Amnesty International. 2016. “The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on a Qatar 2022 World Cup Site.”

[v] Hamill, Sarah. 2018. “The 2022 World Cup: Forced Labor of Migrant Workers.” Trafficking Matters.

[vi]  United Nations Human Rights Council. 2014. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau.” United National General Assembly.

[vii] Svensson, Sofia. 2019. “Labour conditions in Qatar could result in as many as 4,000 deaths before the start of the 2022 World Cup.”

[viii] Fisher, Nicole. 2018. “Qatar’s 2022 World Cup is Already a Human Trafficking Nightmare.” The Federalist.

[ix]  International Trade Union Confederation. 2014. “The Case Against Qatar: Host of the FIFA 2022 World Cup.”

[x] Doherty, Regan. 2012. “U.S. Firm CH2M Hill wins key Qatar World Cup contract.” Reuters.

[xi] U.S. Department of State. 2018. “Trafficking in Persons Report: 2018.” P53

[xii] Amnesty International. 2019. “Reality Check: The State of Migrant Workers’ Rights with Four Years to Go Until the Qatar 2022 World Cup.”

[xiii] Ibid, P44-45.

[xiv] Ibid, P537-560.

[xv] Ibid, P53.

[xvi] U.S. Department of State. 2018. “Trafficking in Persons Report: 2018.” P53

[xvii] Qatar Foundation. “Why are We Talking About Qatar’s Buried History of Slavery?”’s-buried-history-of-slavery

[xviii] U.S. Department of State. 2018. “Trafficking in Persons Report: 2018.” P357-360.

[xix] Abraham, Rhea. 2018. “Getting Qatar Ready For 2022: Reforms in Labor Immigration Policy and India’s Options.” Middle East Institute.

[xx] Pape, Robert. 1997. “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work.” International Security. Vol 22, No 2. P90-136.

[xxi] Gordon, Joy. 2013. “The Human Costs of the Iran Sanctions.” Foreign Policy.

[xxii] Hufbauer, Gary; et al. 2007. “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.” Chapter 5, Sanctions after the Cold War. P125-154.

[xxiii] Tostensen, Arne and Bull, Beate. 2002. “Are Smart Sanctions Feasible?” World Politics. Vol 54, No 3. P373-403.

[xxiv] Chuang, Janie. 2006. “The United States as Global Sheriff: Using Unilateral Sanctions to Combat Human Trafficking. Michigan Journal of International Law. Volume 27, Issue 2. P492-493.

[xxv] The Economist. 2012. “Fine and Punishment: The economics of crime suggests that corporate fines should be even higher.”

[xxvi] United Nations. 2014. “Report of the committee set up to examine the representation alleging non-observance by Qatar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), made under article 24 of the ILO Constitution by the International Trade Union Confederation and the Building and Woodworkers International.”,P50012_LANG_CODE:3113101,en:NO

[xxvii] United Nations Human Rights Council. 2014. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau.” United National General Assembly.

[xxviii] Economist Intelligence Unit. 2017. “Boycott pushes up food prices in July.”

[xxix] Harwood, Anthony. 2018. “Modern slavery: Qatar workers allowed to leave without exit visas.” Global Construction Review.

[xxx] U.S. Department of State. 2018. “Trafficking in Persons Report: 2018.” P58

[xxxi] FIFA. 2019. “Who We Are: Secretary General.”

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