Podcast @brandtschool about #migrant workers’ rights and #sportswashing in mega events like #Qatar2022 football worldcup

The Brandt School students recorded a podcast on international labour law and sportswashing using the case of mega events such as the football (soccer) World Cup in Qatar 2022. The podcast was recorded before the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened, so you won’t find references to it. But, I think, the huge entanglement of organizations like FIFA, UEFA or the IOC with dictatorships such as Russia, make some of the lessons of this podcast also relevant for current events.

You can listen to the podcast here: https://thebulletin.brandtschool.de/the-bulletin-podcast-18-labor-violations-against-migrants-in-mega-events#jump

Or you can read some (hastily written) interview notes (not an accurate transcript) of the podcast here:


1.           Could you please explain the international labor law? How does it

protect labor migrants? Why is it important?

To be honest ILL does not exist to the same degree that international business law or international trade law exists. Often at the intersection between HR and Labour Rights. It is a patchwork of private, public and supra-/international law (UN, WTO, ILO, EU). In some realms quite advanced (e.g. anti-discrimination with in EU, health & safety regulations, regulations related to international trade, although there is no such thing as a social clause within the GATT/ WTO rules). In others standards ratified by some countries and also with implementation problems, most importantly those by ILO, e.g. through Fundamental Conventions.

Enforcement more difficult, Often done unilaterally, or through trade sanctions (e.g. in the case of dumping), Regional enforcement schemes. There are also important voluntary standards (CSR strategies by companies). Within all these standards, guaranteeing free flow of labour one of the most subject areas of IL standards. International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families is a Convention of the UN, however fewer than 50 countries ratified it (the least ratified of all UN HR Conventions). No country from the Arabic peninsula, if I see this correctly. Not the only international attempt at regulation. ILO also has several migration-specific tools e.g. the Migration for Employment Convention, and of course on Forced Work.

So, all in all, yes ILL is important, but it is still in its infancy/teenage years, if that makes sense. Compared to, say the international trade regime it was much more controversial in the beginning and so advanced could only be seen on issue such as Child Work. Migration remains a controversial topic.

2.           Why do we need to talk about mega events when we raise the issue of

violation of labor migrant rights?

We don’t need to talk, but because Mega Events have more visibility, they highlight important social problems in the field of work and work-related migration. In an age of limited attention span in the World Opinion, such Events get a lot of air time. In this way they can bring attention. What they don’t provide is real leverage, unless the FIFA really insists on exercising the leverage (e.g. by a threat of withdrawing the tournament). So, this discussion gets us away from merely legal aspects to social and political mobilisation for workers’ rights.

3.           Can mega-events like the World Cup be an avenue to pressurize reforms

in the host country’s labor market?

In principle yes, but we need to understand first the motives why would Qatar host the world Cup? I think it is not because the Sheiks are crazy about sports. They tend to prefer yachting & sailing, Polo or Hunting with Hawks. Let me tell you an anecdote to support this impression. 12 years ago, I went to Indonesia for a holiday (and some business). I booked a surprisingly cheap flight, because I forgot that on the very day of the flight would be the World Cup final in South Africa. Then I checked and I saw we will have a 6h stop in Doha, the capital of Qatar. So I thought, well that’s great, let’s watch the game there. When I arrived at the airport, the game was nowhere displayed, in no bar, not even most of the airport lounges. I would have paid, but to those I could have gotten access they did not bother. What I did see, instead, was a lot of ads for Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup.

I think this anecdote reveals what Qatari leaders really want. They need the WC for Sportswashing (which is exactly the opposite of what we have been discussing, i.e. distracting attention from unpopular political issues such as HR, involvement in conflicts) in the broad sense and to gain international support also for domestic security. Don’t forget Qatar is also in an economic and strategic rivalry if not manifest conflict with other countries, Saudi Arabia in particular. So actually, Mega Events often do the opposite, they try to distract World Opinion from a hot political issue. You might have heard that Saudi Arabia, through some investment vehicles, recently bought a English Premier League Club for instance. Or just think why China hosted two Olympic games in recent times? One motive is clearly to show how well organized, how clean and how desirable the Chinese political regime is as a project. And of course that the claims about HR abuses among Uigurs are just lies, so they say.

Does this sportswashing to host events such as World Cups, Olympic Games etc. work? I think there is some systematic (statistical) evidence that it does, and also good case study evidence. But there are also disclaimers. E.g. in democracy it works less. And, of course, there is counter-mobilization. Organizations such as Transparency International, Amnesty International, Workers’ Rights Movements, Migrants’ Rights Movements etc….

Did raising attention to the horrible working standards in Qatar work? Well, to some degree. E.g. Qatar did sign an agreement with the ILO in 2017, cases get intensely monitored etc. Has Qatar abolished the Kafala system and introduced a general minimum wage? Human Rights Watch, for instance, would argue that only some important elements of the system have been removed.

Kafala means that an international migrant gets employed by someone in Qatar and the migrant does have no rights of unilaterally quitting and, e.g. look for another job, often his or her legal documents are withheld so that a worker can no longer leave the country without the permission of the employer. They often also do not have to any legal resources, e.g. if a worker wants to sue his or her employer. Such systems can easily lead to abuse, mistreatment, horrible working conditions and often constitute forced, if not a form of slave labour.

So yes, counter-mobilization to some degree. Qatar feels being watched more than before. But it is also remarkable that they postponed the abolition until most of the construction were done. Otherwise there ludicrously ambitious plan to host a world cup in such hostile climate conditions in such a short period of time would have been blown away, I guess.

4.           How can organizing committee and private investors play a role in

pushing for improvements in the international labor laws and practices?

As I said, the FIFA should have a role in this, because it is the only organization with direct leverage over the Qataris. But it doesn’t because it considers itself to be unpolitical, and because it itself is deeply divided on such issues. Moreover, it gets a lot of money from Qatar, and I mean a lot of money, both officially, and if the sources are correct, there is also clear evidence for corruption, for instance in getting the right to host the tournament. Not saying that the Qatar bid was the only corrupt one, but it was arguably the highest offer.

So pressure needs to come from FIFA’s main sponsors e.g. such as VISA, Coca Cola, but also Adidas. Adidas is often overlooked, because it is kind of assumed to be part of the logistics, but there is also good evidence for the very intimate role which Adidas plays. For me, as a German it is always bewildering that Adidas often gets a pass in this regard. They are a major ally of FIFA.

Shaming does work to some extent. So FIFA has had some difficulties, reportedly to get prominent sponsors. But, of course, the most important sponsor of World Cup 2022 is Qatar itself. And don’t forget that there are also a lot of non-Western sponsors for which such shaming strategies may not necessarily work.

5.           What happens after the mega events are over? How can we ensure host

countries continue to protect labor migrants?

The saddest thing about such Mega Events and the Qatari World Cup in particular is that it usually does not yield lasting impacts. There might be some exceptions. For instance, Barcelona used the 1992 summer Olympic games to relaunched its urban face and this arguably spurred a lot of investment and tourism, but very often, there is little economic benefit in hosting a tournament. Which is one of the reasons that recent mega events were not hosted by any type of rich countries, but by rich autocratic countries. These countries want to gain something out of it, namely international popularity, and also domestic popularity. It is kind of an Opium for the Masses, if you want, something you offer either instead of political rights, democratic accountability etc.

So yes, the counter-mobilization of human rights organizations, organization promoting ILL etc. are vital. They are important to make sportswashing as ineffective as possible. The Khafala system might have been severly and lastingly undermined, the Qatari government seeks international reputation especially in the West, so it also tries to become more modern in the sense of social and labour standards.

All in all, however, we also need to rethink how mega events are allocated. For instance, it is obvious that hosting the World Cup in Qatar and under such conditions is a political, social and environmental disaster which costs more than it really brings back. Apart from being good entertainment, of course. For me the thing that makes the Qatar World Cup so absurd are its social and environmental cost with very little legitimacy in terms of being support by actual local fans.

It is important to note that this is not to promote a Eurocentric, self-serving narrative. It should become easier, financially speaking to host mega events, and organizations should help countries in the Global South to host these events rather than to press them into financially extremely unfavourable terms. The grotesque nature of hosting a World Cup in a country of 300,000 Qataris and 2.3 million migrants highlights the dubious way how the FIFA allocates World Cups. In the grand scheme, the entertainment circus will move on the. The big stadiums, will be used for something else, built back or will remain empty white elephants.

One sign of the times is perhaps, and we saw this in the recent European Cup, is that Football gets increasingly politicized and polarized. In that way, there will be pressure exerted again against those who participate. For instance, a lot of companies and UEFA (the European football association) itself were accused of Pinkwashing, i.e. paying lip services to HR as regards sexual orientations. UEFA (and FIFA) a good examples, because they launch costly PR campaigns raising awareness about anti-discrimination and anti-racism, but then hosts 4 games in Budapest, Hungary, which currently has a clearly xenophobic, racist and homophobic national government.

So yes, awareness raising is very important, first and foremost to counter and undermine the Sportswashing strategy of these regimes. Second, we need to tie more aid and trade policies to minimum labour standards. Of course, the West cannot abuse and inflate the use of social dumping against poorer countries. But things like forced work, withholding important legal documents and making workers work during unbearable heat etc. must be forbidden in any context, and, in particular not in super-rich countries such as Qatar. These minimum labour standards should also be accompanied by minimum capital investment standards. Not every investor is desirable, and there needs to be an international regime that indexes investments on ecological, social and political criteria. Sounds naïve, but you have to start somewhere.

Finally, and returning to the mega-events, the rules of giving away hosting rights of such events must also be scrutinized. I am a big fan of imposing a lottery system to take away corruption from the process. And FIFA also needs to decide how to deal with political conditions. And cannot merely launch fancy PR campaigns exhorting appeals to common humanity, but in the offices collaborating with brutal regimes. Or else, it needs to become a vacuous diplomatic organization with no political content whatsoever, but then risk that important sponsors will feel forced to withdraw.

In the larger question of the regulation of migration flows, of course, we also need more scrutiny and political and legal mechanisms to ensure that migrants’ rights are respected all along the way of migration. My wife, Luicy Pedroza works on a project that looks at an integrated perspective on migrants’ rights starting in their home country going into the destination country and combining numerous aspects such as questions of legal status, social rights, labour market integration.


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