Helots in Qatar

Fun’s over.

Nick Cohen wonders

how many lives will be lost so that the Fifa World Cup™ can live up to its boast that it is the most successful festival of sport on the planet.

It’s not a rhetorical or playful question.

Qatar’s absolute monarchy, run by the fabulously rich and extraordinarily secretive Al Thani clan, no more keeps health and safety statistics than it allows free elections. The Trade Union Confederation has had to count the corpses the hard way. It found that 83 Indians have died so far this year. The Gulf statelet was also the graveyard for 119 Nepalese construction workers. With 202 migrants from other countries dying over the same nine months, Ms Burrow is able to say with confidence there is at least one death for every day of the year. The body count can only rise now that Qatar has announced that it will take on 500,000 more migrants, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, to build the stadiums, hotels and roads for 2022.

Not all the fatalities are on construction sites. The combination of back-breaking work, nonexistent legal protections, intense heat and labour camps without air conditioning allows death to come in many guises. To give you a taste of its variety, the friends of Chirari Mahato went online to describe how he would work from 6am to 7pm. He would return to a hot, unventilated room he shared with 12 others. Because he died in his sleep, rather than on site, his employers would not accept that they had worked him to death. There are millions of workers like him around the Gulf.

Nick cites Human Rights Watch, so let’s take a look at what they say about Qatar.

Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world, with only 225,000 citizens in a population of 1.7 million. Yet the country has some of the most restrictive sponsorship laws in the Persian Gulf region, leaving migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Forced labor and human trafficking remain serious problems.

Wow. That sounds like the parts of the slaveholding South where slaves vastly outnumbered non-slaves, and were brutalized accordingly. That in turn sounds like Sparta, where the helots were brutalized because they vastly outnumbered the ruling class. (HRW’s “yet” would make more sense as “therefore.”)

A major barrier to redressing labor abuses is the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer, or “sponsor.” Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employer’s consent, except in exceptional cases with permission from the Interior Ministry. If a worker leaves his or her sponsoring employer, even if fleeing abuse, the employer can report the worker as “absconding,” leading to detention and deportation. In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor, and some said sponsors denied them these visas. Workers widely reported that sponsors confiscated their passports, in violation of the Sponsorship Law.

So Qatar has a form of slavery.

Back to Nick.

Fifa strikes me as a decadent organisation in the political rather than literary meaning of the word. It is an institution whose behaviour contradicts all of its professed purposes. If it cared about football, it would not even have thought of staging a tournament in the Qatari summer. If it cared about footballers, it would take up the case of Belounis. And if it respected human life, it would say that the kafala system could not govern World Cup contracts.

I don’t know how much longer sports journalists can ignore the abuse Fifa tolerates. The World Cup is overturning all the cliches. People say that “football is a matter of life or death”, said Bill Shankly. “It’s more important than that.” Shankly was joking. Qatar and Fifa appear to mean it. Sport is “war minus the shooting”, said Orwell. There may not be any actual shooting in Qatar but workers will die nonetheless.

The quote that ought to haunt all who love football is CLR James’s paraphrase of Kipling: “What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?” James was writing about how sport was bound up in the Caribbean with colonialism, race and class. Anyone writing about the World Cup must also acknowledge that the beautiful game is now bound up with racial privilege, exploitation and the deaths of men, who should not be forgotten so readily.

It’s horrifying.



  1. anbheal says

    Thanks for the informative article. I live in Mexico, and follow futbol, but I was unaware that the 2022 had been awarded to Qatar. Have you any notions how pressure might be brought to bear on FIFA to change its mind, or demand certain reforms, or force all contractors to conform to certain labor laws. Utah had to change a couple of Mormon things, such as serving alcoholic drinks, to conform to the IOC’s parameters, so obviously the governing body CAN influence the host. How could FIFA go about becoming the good guy here, a force with sufficient influence to actually effect some positive changes? Does it have that sort of leverage? Or is it still possible to pull out and select another host country?

  2. says

    I don’t know, although there are probably people commenting on Nick’s article who do. But really I’d rather change Qatar itself than push Fifa. Not that I know how to do that either.

  3. John Phillips, FCD says

    No consolation for the workers building the World Cup venues but it looks as if it will be moved to the winter because of fears over the summer temperatures which routinely hit 40C+ and can hit 50C. Though the Qataris had promised in their bid to air condition both stadia and whole neighbourhoods to protect fans from the heat.

  4. Joseph George says

    Many will die.No body will give a damn also.Their countries only care for their remittances and is happy to be rid of a few for at least some years.The world cup was awarded to Qatar by the pressure exerted on eligible voters( from the west) at Fifa by Western Governments.Not to mention the shady dealings ( rumored) to garner votes of delegates from obscure countries!Think of all the contracts for multinational companies when the amount earmarked by Qatar is no less than $ 150 Billion.This will at least double by 2022.
    So please give human rights a bye and also the health of the players and the spectators.( the world cup is scheduled to happen in summer in the desert state)

  5. lpetrich says

    So it’s even worse than Dubai.

    Seems like a case of the Resource Curse. Oil and democracy don’t mix — oil-rich nations tend to be much lower on democracy than oil-poor nations with similar standards of living. It even goes to the heads of politicians in democratic and sort-of-democratic countries, politicians like Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin and Stephen Harper and Rick Perry. Will we soon add Tony Abbott? Though it’s minerals rather than oil for him.

    One does have to ask how much the governments of Qatar and the UAE and other Gulf States pay politicians and officials in these workers’ home countries to look the other way.

  6. says

    I’ve been a dedicated fan of the game my entire life, as well as a player for 43 years (stopped this past winter, finally), a referee for 12 years, and a coach for 15 years, have been to two Women’s World Cups (and LOVED IT! – the fans at women’s matches don’t tend to go in for the heavy drinking, semi-violent all the time, racist/homophobic abuse that so many of the fans of the men’s game seem to), and think that FIFA is about the most corrupt international institution in the world, leaving even the IOC in the dust.

    They’re *all* on the take, the FIFA members (the people, i mean, not the countries), and they’ve turned the World Cup into a corporate greedfest, culminating in the ridiculous awarding of the 22 Cup to Qatar rather than, y’know, a country that actually plays much football. It was a hideously corrupt process from a hideously corrupt organization. Every now and then someone pisses off someone else politically in the org, and then the pissed-off person starts a “who’s more corrupt” game, with the loser ending up having to go back to prey on their country’s org, rather than the international one. And I am in no way suggesting that the Western dems are any different: the US has had some corruption problems, France, Spain, Italy has had lots, England has had its share.

    It’s vile and horrible, and won’t change unless/until football takes back its own organization and makes it clean up. But since the org co-opts people into the corruption, I don’t expect this to happen any time soon, and definitely not soon enough to help the poor f*ckers who are being worked to death for it. :/


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