/ 13 December 2022

Fifa does little to stop abuses in countries who host the World Cup

Qatar Gettyimages 91652889
Hosting the World Cup serves to strengthen the social ties between nations in that it enhances cross-cultural interaction and promotes international understanding. Photo: Supplied

The Fifa World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the global calendar and an opportunity for showing the hosting nation’s abilities and reversing stereotyped perceptions. 

Hosting the World Cup serves to strengthen the social ties between nations in that it enhances cross-cultural interaction and promotes international understanding. Other benefits include job creation, attracting foreign investment, the tourism sector expanding and selling media rights to broadcast the football games.

But there are shortfalls too. Qatar is in the spotlight as the host of the 2022 World Cup

According to football journalist Samindra Kunti, “Hosting the biggest sporting event in the world has put the country on the map to show off their culture and oiled-fuelled riches, while simultaneously making their authoritarian and repressive regime come off as a model government.”

Qatar lacked the infrastructure to host the World Cup and it was clear that migrant workers would be needed to build and service it. These migrant workers suffered widespread abuse, including illegal recruitment fees, wage theft, injuries, and deaths, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Fifa failed to impose conditions to protect these migrant workers and became an enabler of the labour abuses when workers and civil society groups warned it of these abuses and did little to stop these harms.

The country has also come under scrutiny for its limitation on women’s rights, in that regulations and practices impose male guardianship rules, which deny women the right to make key decisions about their lives. 

Qatar has also been criticised for it criminalising same-sex relations and for limiting freedom of expression and the media in the context of hosting a cross-cultural event that is meant to attract people from different nations with diverse value systems and backgrounds.

But Qatar is one of many countries that have hosted the World Cup and have compromised on human rights protection. Countries with repressive or authoritarian governments that host the World Cup tend to “sportswash”. 

Sportswashing is when countries or states use sports events to airbrush past human rights abuses and improve the image of their country by hosting a global sporting event such as the World Cup. 

Fifa has come under scrutiny for this because it is used to cover up serious human rights abuses, presenting both ethical and moral issues. Qatar’s sportwashing strategy has not worked; the pro-human rights voices have come out strongly against the abuses there. 

Sportswashing is nothing new for Fifa. During the 2018 World Cup held in Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree limiting freedom of assembly in cities that were hosting the games. This led to activists and protesters, both online and offline, being threatened with physical violence, arrested and detained. 

To circumvent internet censorship, Russie adopted legislation around the World Cup period to prevent anonymous use of online messenger applications and software was designed — especially for journalism censorship — to monitor information flow. 

Workers on stadiums being built in Russia for the 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup reported exploitation, including non-provision of contracts, non-payment of wages and retaliation for reporting abuses.

Another example is the 2014 World Cup hosted in Brazil, in which labour abuse was also witnessed. Workers complained about working 84 hours a week, dying because of intense working conditions, being exposed to dangerous working conditions and losing their jobs because of compromised health caused by poor working conditions. 

It does not stop there. The government of Brazil detained protesters, including lawyers and professors, who spoke out against these human rights abuses. 

The run-up to the World Cup in Brazil was marked by the eviction of thousands of families from their homes in urban centres of cities such as Rio de Janeiro and indigenous people’s land was grabbed for large-scale infrastructure and stadium.

South Africa’s 2010 World Cup was also under scrutiny for human rights abuses. Amnesty International reported an increase in police harassment of informal traders, homeless people, and refugees and migrants living in shelters or inner-city areas before the 2010 tournament. This harassment has included police raids, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and extortion, as well as the destruction of informal housing. 

Other human rights abuses included human trafficking of women and children to facilitate the demand for sex labour, poor treatment and exploitation of workers in construction projects, attacks directed at immigrants who were looking for work opportunities and informal traders’ loss of income because of Fifa’s “exclusion zones” for approved businesses around all the stadiums.

Anti-trafficking policies and programmes need to be strengthened and ensure that adequate housing is provided in the context of evictions for the purpose of building stadiums. Photo: Supplied

After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Fifa set up a human rights panel in response to criticism regarding their passiveness when it comes to human rights violations in nations hosting the World Cup. 

The panel includes representatives from Fifa sponsors Adidas and Coca-Cola, corruption watchdog Transparency International, the United Nations and the world players’ organisation, FIFPro. This panel has the potential to play a dynamic role in standing up for human rights in host nations. 

But, in light of the human rights abuses that happened at the 2018 Russia World Cup and the 2022 Qatar World Cup, the effectiveness of this panel is questionable. 

It needs to do more to ensure social responsibility and respect for human rights by, for example, companies associated with the World Cup treat workers fairly, and their rights to a fair wage, to organise and to bargain collectively. 

Additionally, construction companies and other service businesses should not encourage practices that restrict trading opportunities for small and informal traders. Anti-trafficking policies and programmes need to be strengthened and ensure that adequate housing is provided in the context of evictions for the purpose of building stadiums.

Information about Fifa’s procedures are not accessible to the public. Transparency and accountability are crucial to guarantee that the event will not undermine, but enhance, people’s human rights. 

In addition, although Fifa regularly issues rules of conduct applicable to each bidding process, there is no normative framework applicable to all bids. Guidelines for all bidding procedures must be adopted by Fifa. 

As it stands, Fifa bidding processes have no means to assess and ensure candidates’ compliance with human rights protection and rules preventing labour abuses, land grabbing, human trafficking and other ills. Fifa needs to do better for human rights protection leading up to and during World Cups.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.