When Qatari officials landed in Zurich on Thursday for a two-day meeting with the football federation FIFA, they expected to discuss whether its World Cup—the biggest sporting event on the planet—should shift from its usual schedule in June (when Qatar’s temperatures hover around 115 degrees Fahrenheit) to sometime in the winter in 2022, the year the tiny Gulf state is slated to host the tournament. Instead, they now face a much more contentious issue—migrant-worker abuses—that could finally force long-term changes inside the country, and potentially impact the rest of the Persian Gulf region too.
At stake is how Qatar treats hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, whom it needs to build a vast World Cup infrastructure costing about $100 billion. Qatar is building from scratch a new rail system, an entire new suburb adjoining its capital Doha, and nine state-of-the-art, air-conditioned stadiums, in what will be the costliest World Cup ever.
That lavish spending, in one of the world’s richest countries, stands in stark contrast to the working conditions of its labor force, much of which is imported from exceedingly poor countries, and which make up about 90% of Qatar’s residents. Last week the Guardian revealed that at least 44 Nepalese construction workers had died during the blistering summer months this year while working on sites around Qatar. Calling the workers “World Cup ‘slaves,’” the paper detailed how they were housed in cramped barracks with few services, and said that hundreds were effectively trapped in Qatar, unable to return home after construction companies had seized their passports and then not paid them for months. In response, Qatar’s World Cup Supreme Committee said in a statement that it was “appalled by the findings.”
It should have come as no surprise. For years, human-rights organizations have fingered Qatar and its oil-rich neighbors around the Persian Gulf for endemic labor abuses, and for years, officials have vowed to improve matters. Qatar’s Supreme Committee drafted a “2022 Workers Charter” last March, promising that the workers building World Cup sites would enjoy decent housing, prompt pay and the freedom to leave their jobs and return home—all drastic departures from the way business is often done in the Gulf states. At the time, Qatar’s World Cup Supreme Committee stated that its charter was “just the first step in our overall strategy for improving worker’s welfare in Qatar.” When TIME interviewed the committee head Hassan al-Thawadi in Doha in July, he said officials wanted the tournament to be a “catalyst” for transforming the country, and that as part of that, his committee was coordinating with human rights organizations to overhaul decades of grim labor practices.
But changing Qatar could be more difficult than Thawadi suggests. For one thing, Qatar’s very existence depends on migrant workers, since it has only about 250,000 citizens of its own. Not only construction workers are foreign: So too are its police officers, teachers, taxi drivers—you name it. Qatar’s World Cup building sites are in the hands of hundreds of foreign companies, many of which have little long-term accountability to the state as they race to finish huge infrastructure projects in under nine years.
Human rights organizations claim the companies have little incentive to change, because Qatar has a severe shortage of inspectors who are capable of enforcing existing labor laws, let alone far tougher ones that Thawadi has promised for World Cup contracts. “When we ask construction companies, ‘why are you treating your workers like this, why haven’t you paid them for months?’ they react with some shock, as if this is normal, even though they are breaking both Qatari and international laws,” says James Lynch, researcher for Amnesty International, speaking to TIME. After interviewing dozens of migrants and construction companies in Qatar over the past year, for an Amnesty report due out next month, Lynch says he thinks a major problem is the lack of enforcement, which allows employers to treat their workers however they choose. “To be honest, the only way to change things in a big way is with big enforcement and reform of the government,” he says.
That could be a daunting task, since there is still no clear sense how widespread the problem is. Although the Guardian revelations last week shook many Qataris, many of them concluded that the horror stories depicted in the article represented a small minority of employers (a message Lynch says he has heard in meetings with Ministry of Labor officials). “The general response was that it is the smallest contractors which are the worst perpetrators,” says Patrick Forbes, CEO of Forbes Associate, a public-relations consultancy in Doha, speaking to TIME this week. “People feel Qatar is being singled out for criticism, whereas in fact you can go all around the world and find labor abuses.”
Indeed, that could be a major problem for FIFA, too, whose credibility, like Qatar’s, is on the line. Critics accuse its executive committee of making closed-door decisions based on political expediency, ignoring issues like human rights. An independent committee is reviewing how governments influenced FIFA’s executive committee to award the lucrative World Cup bids to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, in a controversial vote held in Zurich in 2010.
FIFA’s own president Sepp Blatter admits Qatar’s win might have been a mistake, in part because players risk wilting in the heat—a factor which other contenders for the 2022 World Cup pointed out at the time of the bidding process. Blatter told reporters in Zurich on Friday that FIFA would vote on whether to move the tournament to the winter months only after next year’s World Cup, which is in Rio de Janeiro—dodging a decision that could cost TV networks and sponsors millions, and cause havoc with other sports schedules like that of the lucrative English Premier League and the U.S.’s NFL Superbowl.
In fact, Thawadi himself says he was “stunned” that Qatar won at all. “I just assumed we would lose to the U.S.,” he said in the interview in July. Aside from the U.S., Qatar also beat out South Korea and Australia.
In the end, politics won out. Blatter told the German magazine Die Zeit last month that European governments had pushed the committee into voting for Qatar “because of major economic interests” in the country, which is the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas. “There was definitely direct political influence,” he said. That politicking has now come to haunt both Qatar and FIFA, both of which have less than nine years to prove they can pull of a World Cup that passes muster with international organizations—no matter whether it is held in winter or summer.