The Not-So Beautiful Game: Public-Private Partnerships, Migrant Workers, and the Qatar World Cup

BU Intl Human Rights
6 min readMay 20, 2023
REUTERS; https://pictures.reuters.com/

“Thank you for believing in change,” His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Chairman of the Qatar Bid Committee told FIFA. “Thank you for believing in Qatar. We will not let you down, you will be proud of us.” To prepare for the World Cup, Qatar undertook numerous infrastructure projects necessary to host the 1.2 million soccer fans — a formidable task. From 2010 to 2022, the small country built expressways, hotels, and airports on the backs of migrant workers.

Twelve years later, there is little of which to be proud. 15,000 migrant workers, many from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, have died in Qatar since bin Hamad Al-Thani’s World Cup announcement in December 2010.

What is a Public-Private Partnership?

Mega-Sporting Events (MSEs) such as the World Cup create high-risk environments for migrant workers employed in construction, domestic work, and other services as they prepare for the influx of tourists to the host city or country. Corporations and governments employ foreign nationals to build the infrastructure necessary to support millions of MSE fans. While many countries fund this development through traditional public tender offers, others employ a form of legal relationship known as public-private partnerships (PPPs), through which private entities finance the projects and in turn receive fees for government usage of those facilities. PPPs, unlike standard contractual funding models, allow collaboration between government and private contractors even after the project is complete. States enter PPPs through traditional private contracts, but with novel terms. For example, a government could enter a contract allowing a private business to build a stadium without any up-front public funding in return for the business’s entitlement to the proceeds of ticket, food, and drink sales at the stadium. As the project is underway, the government assumes an oversight role by ensuring the business and its contractors uphold domestic labor standards. Often, governments create “PPP Units” — dedicated and independent government bodies — whose exclusive role is to monitor private business’ compliance with local regulatory laws.

Government oversight, whether through PPP Units or alternatives, is important to uphold safe labor standards for thousands of migrant workers typically brought into the country by corporations as an economical source of human capital. Often, both the organizing sports body and the state fail to provide legal protections to migrant workers and thus expose them to untimely and inadequate wages, a restricted right to organize, indecent working and living conditions, and other health and safety risks.

2022 Supreme Committee via Getty Images

PPPs may help developing countries build large construction projects while upholding ethical labor practices for migrant workers. Through contracts with the private sector, the government may utilize private actors’ capital and save taxpayer dollars while promoting economic development. The partnership combines the public sector’s regulatory and oversight capacity with the private sector’s focus on profitability. To create a viable PPP, government must work with private actors to prepare and implement policies, create revenue streams through both equity and debt financing, and monitor the project.

PPPs Could Have Prevented Qatar’s Migrant Labor Abuse under the Kafala System

Qatar did not utilize PPPs in its preparation for the World Cup. Instead, Qatar continued to use a kafala (sponsorship) system implemented in 1960 to attract the migrant labor required for the country’s large development projects. Given Qatar’s relatively small population, the kafala provided an opportunity to bring in temporary, cheap labor from other countries.

The kafala system defined the legal relationship between the migrant worker and the employer in Qatar until 2018, when the system was purportedly abolished. To legally enter and work in Qatar as a migrant, the government gave the prospective migrant a visa through sponsorship from a kafeel, which could be a corporation, a Qatari citizen, or another migrant residing in Qatar. Private recruiting agencies in the migrant’s country of origin matched migrant workers and kafeels. The sponsor provided workers with accommodation, food, transportation, and health insurance. In return, the migrant promised to work solely for their sponsor. The sponsor’s approval was required to change employers and to enter and exit the country.

The kafala system represented a privatization of migrant labor. Sponsors, with the sole power to renew or terminate workers’ employment visas, assumed the role of the state to control workers’ legal statuses. Once sponsors took control over migrants’ visas, the Qatari government exercised no oversight. Migrant workers had little freedom under the system. Since many migrants had little knowledge of Arabic and no social support network, the kafala exposed them to exploitation by their sponsors. Through this system, Qatar maintained the highest percentage of expatriate labor in the world.

Under the kafala, migrant workers were left vulnerable to exploitation without protection from Qatar’s labor laws. Critics call the kafala system a form of modern slavery because of the numerous human rights violations commonly committed by employers. For example, migrant workers paid fees to recruiters in their countries of origin, who confiscated passports, visas, and phones. Often, recruiters illegally sold workers’ visas to other employers, resulting in migrants’ assignment to unexpected work or lower wages.

PPPs in Qatar could have created safer, quicker, and less costly development of the numerous infrastructure projects required for the World Cup. As the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe has recognized, PPPs have emerged “as an important tool to bridge the ‘infrastructure deficit’” in transitioning economies. In developing economies, such deficits exist when the country lacks accommodation, transportation, and services to support the influx of thousands of tourists. Here, Qatar had a massive infrastructure deficit. The country built an airport, expressways, an airport, and a metro system in anticipation of the World Cup with the expectation that they could also be utilized after its conclusion. However, the government built these projects contracting under the kafala system. Because the kafala allows the government to abdicate its oversight function, Qatar looked the other way when confronted with human rights abuses by private contractors. PPPs, through the monitoring of PPP Units comprised of both private and public actors, could have decreased migrant deaths, improved working conditions, and prevented labor exploitation.

A Way Forward

When FIFA granted Qatar the World Cup in 2010, Qatar had twelve years to build the infrastructure necessary to support the millions of visitors traveling to the small country. When The Guardian reported an estimated 15,000 migrant workers had died during World Cup preparation, Qatar purportedly abolished the kafala system and implemented labor reforms, but many of these changes remain unenforced. The PPP model could have enabled Qatar to build the infrastructure necessary for the World Cup with fewer human rights abuses. Instead, the Qatari government abandoned its duty to protect the 2 million migrant workers employed under the kafala system. Future World Cup hosts with developing economies should aspire to better and utilize PPPs as a safer, cheaper way to restore the beauty in the beautiful game.

About the Author:

Marco is a third year student at BU Law. He is originally from Philadelphia, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. For three years prior to law school, Marco served as a Teach for America Corps Member teaching Spanish and History in North Philadelphia. This summer, he will be interning with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

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BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.