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A Perennial Problem: Poor Treatment of Migrant Workers

18th December 2022.

Many will be celebrating this day as the World Cup Final between Argentina and France. The tournament has been a memorable one for many, especially in Asia and Africa. Three Asian countries (South Korea, Japan, and Australia) made it to the knockout rounds beating tournament favourites such as Spain and Portugal along the way. Morocco became the first-ever African and Arab country to reach a World Cup semi-final.

Yet, for all the celebrations, many will not realise that 18th December also marks the International Migrants Day.

A tournament riddled with controversy

The World Cup tournament in Qatar was a controversial decision. Beyond accusations of bribery, exorbitant costs, and potential damage to the environment, the tournament was marred by evidence of poor treatment of the thousands of migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, who toiled under the desert sun to build the numerous stadiums and facilities.

News sources have estimated that over 6,500 migrant workers have died in 2021 since Qatar won the World Cup bid. Qatari officials place that number somewhere between 400-500.

While workplace accidents and deaths are, unfortunately, common fixtures in any construction project, the World Cup 2022—specifically the host country Qatar and the organising body FIFA—received huge criticism for the treatment of migrant workers. Squalid living conditions, forced labour, and the kafala system have dehumanised migrant workers.

Meanwhile, FIFA came under fire from European countries for its failure as a football administrator to do more to help migrant workers. Some even suggest that FIFA spent more time and effort threatening European teams with sanctions after some teams proposed wearing One Love armbands during the tournament to highlight the discrimination against LGBTQ+ and migrant worker communities. Accusations of kickbacks and bribery from Qatari officials have not helped FIFA’s image either.

Migrant workers in other countries

Qatar, like many other smaller nations, are examples of countries with a heavy reliance on immigrant labour which includes both migrant workers and international talents/expatriates. In fact, a 2020 UN review placed Qatar second (77%), Kuwait third (73%) and Singapore sixth (43%) in terms of populations with the highest proportion of immigrants. This is reflective of the globalised nature of the labour market with workers being able to move globally to find employment opportunities.

The emphasis on the working conditions of migrant workers being at the forefront of the Qatar World Cup also highlights the growing focus on social justice issues. Even in a small country like Singapore, the focus on social justice is evident. Blackbox’s mid-2022 poll showed that most Singaporeans felt that their government had done well on social justice issues, even after publicised concerns over migrant workers being locked up in dormitories as part of the Covid-related lockdown measures.

Migrant workers are the original Gig Workers

Migrant workers, being employed in less desirable jobs, typically face issues such as racial discrimination, workplace abuses, late salaries, and other human rights abuses. With many migrant workers having little to no formal education, they lack the bargaining power and information access to legal or social aid, which could have well protected them from these abuses.

The current treatment of migrant workers mirrors the treatment of gig workers. Gig workers, now known for being food delivery riders and private hire drivers, historically began with short-term work such as construction workers. Many issues and conditions migrant workers encounter are reminiscent of the gig worker experience. Gig workers have less access to legal labour protections and access to important financial resources such as insurance and savings. With gig workers becoming a normalised feature in the global labour market, ensuring that these workers have a decent working environment becomes paramount.

The ill-treatment of migrant, gig, and other short-term workers is a disappointing phenomenon in the modern era. These workers tend to complement the skillsets of local employees by taking up roles that local employees will not take, creating opportunities for productivity, industrial development, and economic growth. Given the sheer economic contribution that these workers provide, ensuring better working conditions should be a reasonable request.

Human Rights coverage of the World Cup

While the deaths of numerous migrant workers are tragic, perhaps one silver lining post World Cup 2022 is the emphasis on labour rights. Globally, there are concerted efforts to try and improve the working conditions of migrant workers. Even FIFA has now introduced labour rights requirements as part of the bidding process for future tournaments.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), together with Qatari officials, have pushed for labour reforms in the Gulf state. Amendments to the kafala system now allow labour freedom of movement for migrant workers, meaning that these workers can quit and get a different job just like any other person. Previously, migrant workers had to ask (and usually be denied) for permission to quit their existing jobs.

But all these strategies and policies will need to be backed with concrete action and accountability before any meaningful change occurs for migrant workers across industries. Perhaps the biggest impact will be seen in World Cup 2026 in the US, Canada, and Mexico. The Dignity 2026 coalition has brought together groups including the AFL-CIO, Human Rights Watch and the Independent Supporters Council to work with FIFA and the individual host cities. The main goal of this coalition is to ensure reasonable working conditions for any worker that is employed as part of the World Cup 2026.

If workers are not in a position to protect themselves, responsible groups with the information and power need to intervene.

As the excitement of the World Cup 2022 comes to an end, there is a need to recognise the human cost for these major tournaments and workplaces in general. Migrant workers are simply people looking to make an honest living. To learn more about how the push for better labour conditions can benefit your tournaments or businesses, get in touch with us at

Author: Blackbox Research Team


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