Scrutiny on Football Australia over human rights implications of World Cup in Qatar | World Cup 2022

Ever since the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar by Fifa in 2010, there has been much talk about the human rights implications of the tournament. And for the past two years, the Socceroos – with the support of their union, Professional Footballers Australia – have been undertaking their own fact-finding to better understand the reality of the situation they might be entering if they qualified.

Briefings have been organised with many key bodies: Fifa and the local organising committee, the Supreme Committee for Legacy and Development; Fifpro, the global player’s union; human rights group Amnesty International; and groups that advocate for workers in Qatar, including the International Trade Union Confederation and Building and Wood Workers’ International.

But in September, having qualified mid-year in a dramatic shoot-out, the players decided they needed to go straight to the source. With the help of PFA, a briefing was arranged with several migrant workers who have been involved in the A$470bn construction extravaganza needed to prepare a tiny nation of less than three million people for the biggest sporting event in the world.

According to sources present at the briefing, held via Zoom just prior to the Socceroos’ recent friendlies, it was not a happy conversation. “The working conditions are horrendous,” alleged one participant.

Despite much talk from Fifa and Qatar authorities about law reform to strengthen labour rights, the migrant workers on whose back the World Cup has been built continue to suffer labour rights violations. Analysis by the Guardian has found that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won hosting rights for the World Cup – many of whom likely worked on projects relating to the tournament. (Qatari officials have said only three workers have died on-site while building stadiums – a claim that has been disputed). Reports alleging workplace injuries, unpaid wages, squalid accommodation conditions and workplace abuse are widespread.

“The World Cup is the pinnacle for any player and we know how much qualification means for the nation and the game,” Socceroos midfielder Jackson Irvine tells Guardian Australia. “Over the past two years we have engaged with human rights groups and migrant workers directly to better understand the situation in Qatar.”

‘We all have a role to play,’ says Socceroos midfielder Jackson Irvine.
‘We all have a role to play,’ says Socceroos midfielder Jackson Irvine. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

A campaign led by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and FairSquare, “#PayUpFifa”, has been calling on Fifa to establish a fund for workers, to ensure compensation for labour rights abuses. Despite backing for the campaign from the Belgian, French, English, German, Dutch, Welsh and American football assocations, Fifa is yet to agree to the proposal.

“We know there has been progress,” says Irvine. “But we also know that much more needs to be done to fully implement the reforms and the establishment of a migrant workers centre is critical to continued progress.”

Concerns about labour standards are just one part of the human rights-based objection to the 2022 World Cup being held in Qatar. Political and civil rights are significantly constrained in the authoritarian state, with the hereditary emir holding all executive and legislative authority. Freedom House ranked Qatar “not free” it in latest assessment, which noted that “while Qatari citizens are among the wealthiest in the world, most of the population consists of non-citizens with no political rights, few civil liberties, and limited access to economic opportunity.” Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and there have been concerns about the treatment of LGBTQI+ visitors to the World Cup.

“Fifa’s decision in 2010 to hand the World Cup hosting rights to Qatar was misguided then and continues to attract justified criticism,” says Justine Nolan, a law professor and director of UNSW’s Australian Human Rights Institute (AHRI). “Fifa’s more recent adoption of policies that espouse non-discrimination and respect for human rights does not square with Qatar’s policies and practices that actively discriminate against women, migrant workers and LGBTQ+ peoples.”

In its final report on the situation ahead of the World Cup, published last week, Amnesty said that there was “still a long way to go” in addressing human rights and labour rights issues in Qatar. “Despite the positive evolution of Qatar’s labour system, substantial work remains to effectively implement and enforce these [changes],” the report says. “Ultimately, human rights abuses persist on a significant scale today.”

Last week, legal experts and sporting administrators gathered at a hotel in central Sydney to discuss the growing focus on the human rights implications of sporting mega-events. Convened by the AHRI, the event was made all the more topical by recent collisions between sport and politics in Australian sports, including netball, cricket and Australian rules football. The conference discussed sportswashing, a global phenomenon with significant domestic implications.

“In the lead-up to the World Cup some teams are choosing to stand up for rights and yet Football Australia (FA) remains silent, seemingly overlooking the human cost of staging this extravaganza in Qatar,” says Nolan, who co-convened the event.

In contrast, many other nations participating in the World Cup have publicly called out the human rights implications of the tournament. The Danish national team will wear a special “protest” kit; England players will sport a rainbow “one love” armband (Fifa are yet to approve the design, which will also be worn by several other European teams).

A spokesperson for FA told Guardian Australia that it has been engaged in an ongoing “process of education and dialogue to gather information on the situation regarding the preservation of human rights and worker welfare in connection with the hosting of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022.”

The spokesperson acknowledged recent legal reforms in Qatar and said that FA urged “companies and organisations working in Qatar to continue the path to reform and ensure the new legislative standards are met”. FA has also indicated it has undertaken due diligence in relation to all service providers it will use during the tournament, ensuring they “meet the new compliance standards in a socially responsible way”.

A banner depicting Wales captain Gareth Bale hangs alongside a building in Doha.
A banner depicting Wales captain Gareth Bale hangs alongside a building in Doha. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

This scrutiny on FA’s own direct impact is expected to continue during the tournament. “The players will continue to work with FA to ensure that every measure possible is taken to ensure they do not contribute to harm through their participation at the World Cup and that in the event harm occurs, there is access to effective remedy,” says PFA co-chief executive Kathryn Gill, a former Matildas player.

Sources with knowledge of internal dynamics at FA have indicated that its membership of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is a complicating factor. Unlike European football federations, which have limited ongoing engagement with Middle Eastern counterparts, Australian officials and teams are interacting with and playing against Qatari counterparts and neighbouring nations on a regular basis. Speaking up too loudly now could cause political headaches in the future, further ostracising FA within AFC circles.

But that has not stopped the players. Guardian Australia understands that the Socceroos will issue a joint statement ahead of the tournament, highlighting the ongoing labour rights and human rights concerns associated with Qatar 2022. “FA, PFA and the players will have more to say before the tournament commences,” confirmed the FA spokesperson.

“Talking a stand is always a risk but as members of a union we know we have support,” says the Socceroos captain, Mat Ryan. “We are advocating for the same things we value as players – respect and dignity as a worker. We want to ensure that football is a positive force and that means we need to play our part in ensuring this is the case.”

Nor, according to Irvine, will that be the last of it. “We all have a role to play and as players we have focused on how we can have an impact,” he says. “We know that public pressure has helped to facilitate change and the workers have asked us to keep the pressure up. As a country regularly playing in the region we have a responsibility to continue to do this – not just now but after the final whistle of the World Cup.”

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