Forced Labor, Thousands of Deaths, Ahead of World Cup in Qatar Are a Reminder that Exploitation Knows No Boundaries

Despite centuries of struggle to end the abhorrent practice, forced labor has evolved and survived, and remains a pillar of the global economy.

Guardian (UK): “6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded…”

Associated Press: “My manager just said, ‘I don’t care what they said in Bangladesh. We are giving you this salary and nothing more. If you keep talking like this I’ll tell them to cancel your visa and send you back’.”

Click here to take action today to help workers in Qatar and their families receive the compensation they deserve.

Fans all over the world are gearing up to watch their national teams face off in the 2022 Soccer World Cup in Qatar, but according to recent press reports. much of the work to build the new stadiums, hotels, restaurants, roads and infrastructure for the tournament was done using forced and exploited labor. For nearly a decade, human rights organizations have been warning about the rampant abuse against Qatar’s migrant workforce, who make up the vast majority of the country’s population.

On Nov 9, a French construction company was charged with forced labor in Qatar related to the World Cup. As the Associated Press reports: Sherpa, a human rights org, “said it collected testimonies about the working conditions at some construction sites operated by Vinci’s subsidiary, which included working in temperatures over 45 C (113 F) with insufficient water, the withholding of passports, and lack of access to showers in accommodations.”

Meanwhile, an exclusive report by the Guardian connects the dots between those brutal working and living conditions and an outrageous rash of worker deaths in Qatar in the lead ups to this year’s World Cup:

More than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago, the Guardian can reveal.

The findings, compiled from government sources, mean an average of 12 migrant workers from these five south Asian nations have died each week since the night in December 2010 when the streets of Doha were filled with ecstatic crowds celebrating Qatar’s victory…

… While death records are not categorised by occupation or place of work, it is likely many workers who have died were employed on these World Cup infrastructure projects, says Nick McGeehan, a director at FairSquare Projects, an advocacy group specialising in labour rights in the Gulf. “A very significant proportion of the migrant workers who have died since 2011 were only in the country because Qatar won the right to host the World Cup,” he said…

… Qatar’s grim death toll is revealed in long spreadsheets of official data listing the causes of death: multiple blunt injuries due to a fall from height; asphyxia due to hanging; undetermined cause of death due to decomposition.

But among the causes, the most common by far is so-called “natural deaths”, often attributed to acute heart or respiratory failure…

… In 2019 it found that Qatar’s intense summer heat is likely to be a significant factor in many worker deaths. The Guardian’s findings were supported by research commissioned by the UN’s International Labour Organization which revealed that for at least four months of the year workers faced significant heat stress when working outside. (read more)

You can take action today to help workers and their families receive the compensation they deserve.  Support the Avaaz e-action by clicking here.

There are striking similarities between the forced labor found in Qatar and in the food sector here in the US.  Compare these two statements below, the first from a 2016 Amnesty International report on labor conditions in Qatar, and the second from the March 2022 DOJ press release related to the Operation Blooming Onion: 

“Recruitment agents also make false promises about the salary workers will receive, and the type of job on offer. One worker was promised a salary of US$300 a month in Nepal, but this turned out to be US$190 once he started work in Qatar. When workers tell Companies that they were promised higher salaries, they are simply ignored. As Mushfiqur, a gardener in the Aspire Zone, recalled, ‘My manager just said, ‘I don’t care what they said in Bangladesh. We are giving you this salary and nothing more. If you keep talking like this I’ll tell them to cancel your visa and send you back’.”

Now, read the DOJ press release announcing sentences for three co-conspirators in forced labor/human trafficking as part of Operation Blooming Onion in Georiga this year:

“As described in court documents and testimony, Mendoza [a conspirator charged with human trafficking in Operation Bloomong Onion] admitted that from about August 2018 to November 2019, in Glynn, Wayne, and Pierce counties, he was a leader in a venture to obtain and provide labor and services for farms and other businesses. He did so by recruiting and unlawfully charging more than 500 Central American citizens to obtain H-2A visas – specifically granted for temporary agricultural labor – and then withholding the workers’ identification papers and threatening them and their families in their home countries to force them to work for little or no pay and in deplorable conditions.”

Preventing forced labor was one of the main reasons workers in Immokalee created the Fair Food Program (FFP) in the US food sector in 2011. Nearly two decades after pioneering the US anti-trafficking movement — and bringing a series of slavery operations to justice at the rate of nearly one major federal prosecution per year — it became clear to the CIW’s anti-slavery leaders that successful slavery prosecutions do not represent success in the fight against forced labor.  While some ringleaders may go to prison, there were always more waiting in the wings happy to take their place.  All the while, the broader food system remained free to turn a blind to forced labor in its suppliers’ operations and escape accountability for the extreme abuse in its supply chain.  If forced labor were to be ended once and for all in US agriculture, industry leaders would have take responsibility for the human rights violations on their suppliers’ farms and condition their purchases on compliance with fundamental human rights — with zero tolerance for forced labor. 

But as the working conditions of the World Cup show, it is not just farmworkers in the US who need protections against coercion, exploitation, wage theft, and slavery. Industries all over the world continue to rely on these abusive practices. This is why workers around the globe — including most recently fishers in the UK — are increasingly turning to the FPP for help in adapting the WSR model to new contexts.  As long as a workers’ freedom can be stripped from them, as the stories from Qatar reveal, without real consequence, programs like the FFP and the broader WSR model will remain vital resources.