Last month, Qatar's Law No. 21, a replacement for the notorious kafala system, finally took effect a full six years after the country "won" the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. You probably know the basics by now: Qatar's exploitative labour system required foreign labourers, primarily from the Asian subcontinent, to fork over hefty fees to buy their way into Qatar. Once there, they worked under horrible, dangerous conditions as quasi-slave labour, in which their company essentially owned them and they couldn't work for anyone else or leave the country without the company's permission, all while getting paid very little.
Despite Qatar's marketing around the new law, No. 21 changes little about the country's labour system. Human Rights Watch's 2017 World Report says the law "left the fundamentally exploitative characteristics of the kafala system in place, whereby a migrant worker's legal residence in the country continues to be tied to their employer or sponsor." Workers still have to get their employer's permission to change jobs or leave the country while under contract. Any disputes about the length of the contract or proper enforcement therein goes to an unspecified "grievance committee" which I'm sure will be fairly adjudicated by justice-minded neutral parties. Workers are also still prohibited by law from striking or unionising, despite comprising 99 percent of the country's private sector workforce.
"We will take the Qatari authorities at their word," FIFA President Gianni Infantino said during his visit to the country back in April. "The hosting of the FIFA World Cup is an opportunity to set a benchmark in terms of sustainable and fair working conditions for all workers in Qatar. We are aware of our responsibilities and our duties, and if we can help achieve changes beyond football then we will do so."
We're halfway through Qatar's World Cup preparations, and the most charitable interpretation of these new benchmarks for "fair working conditions" is: Well, now the exploited workers can go to a nebulously defined grievance committee after five years to lobby for their freedom. Is that your idea of labour reform?
Mega-event "legacies" are always a steaming pile of bullshit. But here was an actual chance, however remote, for FIFA to leave a positive human rights legacy behind. Instead, FIFA is failing, aiding and abetting in human misery on a grand scale, unable or unwilling to use its leverage to create even a modicum of respect for worker's rights. Given that Qatar is cozying up to Russia, hardly champions of human rights themselves, it increasingly feels like the Gulf state is going to coast to 2022 and beyond with kafala by a different name largely intact. That, first and foremost, will be FIFA's legacy.