What was going through the minds of England players as they took the knee, yet again, prior to their victory over Poland in their 2022 World Cup qualifier at Wembley last week? George Floyd? Racism in sport? Nothing in particular?
We’ll never know. But it seems unlikely they were thinking too hard about the destination where, if their good form holds, they will be representing their country next winter: the tiny gulf state of Qatar. If they had, they might have spared a thought, and perhaps a gesture, for the 6,500 migrant workers estimated to have died since Qatar won the right to host next year’s tournament.
The issue of migrant worker deaths in Qatar has been a running sore, which has become inflamed again as the qualifiers have got under way. Reports that workers were being seriously exploited first emerged in an Amnesty International report in 2013. This led to an inspection visit from the ITUC (International Trades Union Congress), who found dangerous and unsanitary conditions and described a situation akin to modern slavery.
In the years since, the drip drip of appalling stories – of workers electrocuted, falling from construction sites or taking their own lives – has continued. Many of those who have died are poor migrant workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The number of dead is hotly disputed by the Qataris and has not been independently verified. But the stories of misery at least call into question the wisdom of allowing Qatar to host the tournament.
The fresh data and renewed focus on the problem provoked calls in Norway for their national team to boycott the tournament and led the Norwegian FA to set up a committee of enquiry to decide on an official response. Norway’s players wore T-shirts bearing the message ‘human rights on and off the pitch’ for their qualifier against Gibraltar.
Dutch and German players also wore T-shirts with human rights messages for their qualifiers and Netherlands boss Frank de Boer said that whether his side should participate if they qualified was a valid question. The highest profile player to speak out so far is Germany’s Tony Kroos, who made scathing criticisms of the treatment of migrant workers in his weekly podcast.
'You have to call a spade a spade when it comes to working conditions. It's about many workers from Qatar, but also migrant workers, having to work non-stop in sometimes 50 degree heat,' he said.
The English FA belatedly weighed in with a blandly worded statement about engaging with the tournament in a 'socially responsible' manner. The FA recognised that there is still work to be done on human rights in Qatar, but added that ‘there is evidence of some progress being made.’
This is debatable. The Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body responsible for overseeing preparations for the tournament, responded by pointing out various improvements to workers’ conditions initiated by the first wave of criticism, including better accommodation, salaries and medical care. In September 2020, new laws came into place that the UN reported should ‘effectively dismantle’ the notoriously restrictive, many would say exploitative, ‘kafala’ system, in which employers basically own their employees, but added the caveat: ‘if effectively enforced’.
And therein lies the rub; it has been reported by Migrant Rights that Qatar’s legislative body is now considering recommendations to deny migrants certain rights, including allowing workers to switch jobs during the term of their contract. It also questions the effectiveness of the remaining changes. Effectively, the human rights organisation concludes, the much-trumpeted reforms looked good on paper but are difficult to enforce in practice, and may now be withdrawn entirely.
Workers' rights have dominated the headlines about the Qatar World Cup, but it is not the only reason for disquiet and perhaps more trouble ahead. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and theoretically punishable by death. Is this really a place to host a football World Cup?
The argument for participating in next year's tournament is that a boycott would help precisely no one. The decision to award the tournament to Qatar cannot be undone, and at least going there and allowing the world’s media to focus on this rarely exposed part of the world, will raise awareness and act as a catalyst for change. Cynics might suggest, though, that this is a convenient get out, especially for those countries looking to host future World Cups and keen to stay in FIFA’s good books; the UK is planning to bid for the centenary World Cup in 2030.
It seems unlikely that Norway, Holland or anyone else will actually boycott the 2022 World Cup should they qualify, and even Amnesty International isn’t calling for this. But those imagining the World Cup will sweep over Qatar like a magic wand, transforming the country into a western idea of a socially just society, are surely being hopelessly optimistic.
It seems far more likely that, once the tournament is over, interest in the not especially appealing gulf state will vanish. The futuristic-looking air-conditioned stadia will then either be dismantled or repurposed at the tournament’s end, no doubt by an army of migrant workers whose treatment will be of little concern to the no longer watching world.
Whether England players will still be taking the knee then remains to be seen.