Infantino’s call to ‘focus on the football’ a crass abdication of FIFA’s accountability for migrant worker abuses

In less than a week’s time, FIFA President Gianni Infantino will take his seat for the opening game of the 2022 World Cup, when hosts Qatar face Ecuador. at the state-of-the-art Al Bayt stadium in Doha. One of seven venues purpose-built for the tournament, the site is the crown jewel in a massive development project that has transformed the area in and around Qatar’s capital since 2010, when FIFA awarded the country hosting rights. At a reported cost of US$200 billion, infrastructure including training venues, hotels and highways has been built in preparation for the visit of an expected 1.5 million football fans for arguably the world’s biggest sporting event.

For the millions of migrant workers who delivered all of this, the price has also been high. None more so than for Nepali citizen Tul Bahadur Gharti, who, at the age of 34, died in his sleep in November 2020 after working more than ten hours in temperatures of up to 39°C on a construction site. Gharti’s wife Bipana has never been given any explanation about what happened to her husband. A death certificate issued by the Qatari authorities said that Gharti, who had no history of ill-health, had died of ‘natural causes’.

In May 2022, Amnesty and 24 other civil society organizations and trade unions wrote to Gianni Infantino urging him to establish a remediation programme for the abuses suffered by people such as Gharti and Bipana. Theirs is just one among countless stories of human suffering beneath the shimmering façade that Qatar will showcase to the world from 20 November. As widely documented by Amnesty and others, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers—predominantly from South and South-East Asia and Africa—have been subjected to rampant labour abuses and exploitation. These include extortionate recruitment fees, conditions amounting to forced labour, lost and unpaid wages, and long hours without days off. Meanwhile, Gharti’s is one of thousands of migrant worker deaths that remains unexplained.

Amnesty’s call for compensation has garnered an expanding and diverse list of backers including the football associations of England, Germany, France, Netherlands and the USA; World Cup sponsors Coca Cola, Adidas, Budweiser and McDonalds; and, via a viral video last month, the Australian national team. A global poll commissioned by Amnesty in September revealed that 84% of likely World Cup viewers also favour the proposal.

Amid this growing clamour, the most crucial voice of all has remained conspicuously silent: Gianni Infantino. Despite private and public assurances from FIFA that they are ‘considering the proposal’, Infantino, a few platitudes aside, has consistently dodged the topic. To date, he has provided no response to our joint letter. Then, earlier this month, he sent a letter of his own. Addressed to all 32 competing nations, he urged them to ‘focus on the football’ and brushed aside concerns about human rights, appearing to dismiss them as “ideological or political battles.”

Infantino’s letter is a crass attempt at shirking FIFA’s culpability for these abuses and responsibility towards these workers, which is unequivocal. Enshrined in its own policies is a commitment to remedy human rights abuses it has contributed to. Given the well documented history of labour rights abuses in Qatar, FIFA knew⁠—or should have known⁠—the obvious risks to workers when it awarded Qatar the tournament. Despite this, there was not a single mention of workers or human rights in its evaluation of the Qatari bid and no conditions were put in place on labour protections. FIFA has since done far too little to prevent or mitigate those risks.

Not all of FIFA’s hierarchy has been quite so muted. In October, the organization’s Deputy Secretary General, Alasdair Bell, told the Council of Europe that it was “important to try to see that anyone who suffered injury as a consequence of working in the World Cup, that that is somehow redressed.” He added that “this is something that we’re interested in progressing”. Fine sentiments that show support is reaching the highest levels of FIFA, but without Infantino’s blessing, they will remain empty words.

Since assuming the FIFA presidency in 2016, Gianni Infantino has presided over a notable shift in the governing body’s approach to human rights. His tenure has coincided with positive labour reforms in Qatar, albeit with a great distance still to go. While the establishment of FIFA’s first human rights policy in 2017, the announcement of the Qatar World Cup Sustainability Strategy in 2020, and human rights criteria for 2026 World Cup bids were also important markers of progress.  Fundamental to those policies is FIFA’s responsibility to address harms that they have contributed to, and to ensure these are not repeated in the future. FIFA now needs to walk the talk. A pledge from Infantino to provide compensation would provide a tangible demonstration that FIFA is truly serious about its commitment to respect human rights.

A common refrain from FIFA and Qatar, and one cited by Bell in his comments to the Council of Europe, is that a remedy package would be complicated to design and administer. Yes, the number of people and the scope of abuses involved make this a complex undertaking; but this must not be used as an excuse for inaction or further delay. Solutions are available if the will is there to find them.

All we are calling for at this stage is a cast iron commitment from FIFA that abused workers will be compensated and that programmes to prevent further abuses are funded. This should include a centre where workers can learn about their rights and seek legal assistance and advice. All of this can be done at the stroke of Infantino’s pen. The details, which should be thrashed out together with the Qatari authorities, trade unions, independent experts, and migrant workers themselves, can come after the World Cup is over. Money should not provide a barrier given the US$6 billion revenues FIFA will make from the tournament.

For people like Bipana, no amount of money can erase their suffering or bring back their loved ones. But a financial compensation package will go a long way towards helping victims and their families rebuild their lives. If Gianni Infantino truly wants the world to focus on the football during the World Cup, he should start by ensuring that the very people who made it possible receive the justice and compensation they deserve. The clock is ticking.

This op-ed first appeared in Spanish in El Pais and in French in Le Monde