Worldwide sporting events have a high - and often hidden - human cost in terms of forced labor and modern slavery. The World Cup may be getting better, but much progress remains to be made.
The enormous amount of groundwork a host country must do to prepare for hosting the World Cup is an undertaking of daunting magnitude. Unfortunately, for modern-era World Cups, building venues and preparing cities for the deluge of fans has been accomplished with a dark and shameful resource: Exploited human beings.
The perception exists that major sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics attract huge numbers of sex workers. This is true to some extent, but not to the degree many people believe. Less widely known is the exploitation of migrant workers and the use of forced labor.
Here’s a summary of how human trafficking played out, or is playing out, for 2006 host Germany, 2018 host Russia and 2022 host Qatar.
(It is worth noting that reporting levels vary from country to country, as does enforcement, and not all countries are willing to be fully transparent on these issues.)
In Germany, a proactive approach pays off
Prior to the 2006 World Cup, advocacy groups estimated that 40,000 sex workers from Eastern Europe and Asia would descend upon Germany.This was a fear that proved to be unfounded. Hamburg and Cologne, both of which have prominent “red-light districts,” showed little evidence of increased prostitution, while Munich saw a surge of women working in brothels. Artemis Sauna Club, a luxurious brothel in Berlin, built a facility to accommodate 650 customers. However, the games did not generate the customers the brothel expected.
Why was there low turnout at these brothels? This could be attributed to efforts by German officials and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) prior to the games. Preparation for the 2006 World Cup started the summer before as various NGOs distributed thousands of leaflets, posters, postcards and utilized the internet to raise awareness. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that out of 33 sexual exploitation cases investigated by the Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Criminal Police Office), five cases were directly linked to the World Cup.
In Russia, an exploited workforce suffers
Leading up to this year’s World Cup in Russia, several reports by Human Rights Watch have raised the issue of migrants working and living in slave-like conditions during their “employment” to build and renovate several stadiums. Workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan have been subjugated to long hours with little pay and threatened with expulsion if they voiced out their concerns.
Storage containers are being used to house workers with one North Korean being found dead inside one. In March 2016, facing threats of expulsion, migrants working on Luzhniki stadium in Moscow and another in Nizhniy Novgorod went on strike following two months of unpaid wages. A similar incident occurred in May when Turkish migrants working on Rostov Arena in Rostov on Don protested against Crocus Group over wages.
In August 2016, FIFA, Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), Local Organising Committee (LOC) and Russian Construction Workers Union (RBWU) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to ensure decent and safe working conditions. The MoU led to the evaluation of construction sites with estimated 9,000 workers employed by more than 100 construction companies. BWI has reported 20 worker deaths in relation to stadium construction. As the end of construction approaches, there are questions surrounding several companies’ plan or lack thereof to pay migrant workers.
This is not the first time Russia has faced forced-labor allegations. Migrant abuses can be traced back to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In late 2013, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak highlighted that more than 500 companies involved in building infrastructure for the Sochi games failed to pay their employees a total of 277 million rubles (US $8.34 million). Based on this assessment, it is highly likely that many migrant workers utilized to build the World Cup facilities will not receive their wages.
In Qatar, inveterate human rights abuses continue
One of the major concerns around the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been migrant exploitation and forced labor. To monitor migrant workers in the nation, Qatar uses a system called Kafala (“sponsorship”). This system is common in other Middle Eastern nations, as well. It is often abused as a means to withhold visa documents from migrant workers. In a March 2014 report, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) highlighted that since Qatar won the bid in 2010, an estimated 1,200 workers have died, the largest death toll for any mega sporting event. (By comparison, the next highest was the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics which resulted in the death of 60 people followed by the 2004 Athens Olympics which killed 40 people.) ITUC estimates that at least 4,000 laborers could die building the infrastructure needed to support the Qatar World Cup. Living and working conditions have contributed to the death toll, prompting the international community to question Qatar’s suitability to host the games.