In the end, it only took a $150 million scandal to make Americans care about soccer.
FIFA, the notoriously corrupt and yet seemingly invincible governing body of world soccer, has finally landed itself an indictment that some would say is worthy of its reputation. The charges against a handful of senior FIFA officials include money laundering, racketeering, bribery and fraud. In short, the federal lawsuit alleges what millions of soccer fans have suspected all along: that FIFA officials have been using the organization's massive influence to line their pocketbooks.
On the surface, it's just another white collar crime story: rich, powerful men making themselves richer and more powerful. But a closer look suggests that real-world suffering may be happening as a result of FIFA's decisions.
Qatar offers an example. The decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the rich Gulf state with a deeply problematic human rights record was a controversial one right out of the gate. There have been extensive allegations of bribery: why else, some figured, award the Cup to a tiny country with sweltering summer heat and no soccer culture to speak of?
As Qatar has begun building the infrastructure to host the World Cup, worker advocacy groups and human rights groups have sounded alarm about whether all the workers needed to build the infrasturcture would receive adequate workplace protections. A Guardian investigation last year stated that Nepalese migrant workers were dying at a rate of one every two days and attributed those deaths to construction of the stadium. In its own statement, the Qatari government says there have been no deaths related to the stadium.
Given that there is likely to be deaths among the migrant population no matter what, it is hard to know how many of those deaths, if any, are directly linked to the construction of the stadium.
Overall, a report commissioned by the Qatari government shows 964 deaths of migrants from India, Nepal and Bangladesh in 2012 and 2013. It doesn't include deaths from places like the Philippines and Sri Lanka, which have a smaller but significant number of migrant workers in the country. The report concludes:
In the absence of more transparent statistics, it is difficult to take a view on the extent to which these recorded death tolls (and injury reports) involving migrant workers are attributable to the working conditions and / or breaches of health and safety standards (in particular in the construction sector) in Qatar.Going forward, it is crucial that the State of Qatar properly classifies causes of deaths. It is critical to collect and disseminate accurate statistics and data in relation to work-related injuries and deaths. If there are any sudden or unexpected deaths, autopsies or post-mortems should be performed in order to determine the cause of death. If there are any unusual trends in causes of deaths, such as high instances of cardiac arrest, then these ought to be properly studied in order to determine whether preventative measures need to be taken.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers come to Qatar each year, and there could be hundreds of deaths even without a World Cup -- figures from the Indian embassy show, for instance, that 200 plus Indian workers died in Qatar in 2010, before the World Cup announcement. But the numbers could also be worse: a report by the International Trade Union Confederation has estimated 1,200 deaths in recent years. If current trends continue, the ITUC estimates that 4,000 workers will die in Qatar by the time the World Cup is actually held in 2022.
The chart below graphs the fatality numbers for Qatar based on its government report.
Qatar officials have previously pledged to address worker safety concerns. “We believe that the people helping us build our country deserve to be fairly paid, humanely treated and protected against exploitation,” the country's labor ministry told the Guardian. “That is why we are reforming our labour laws and practices."
Still, it's clear that Qatar has a troubled record when it comes to poor worker safety. The International Trade Union Confederation has called the state "a country without a conscience." Many of the abuses of migrant workers in Qatar and other Gulf countries are related to a governing system called "kafala," which dictates how migrant workers may enter the country. The system has been criticized for essentially placing workers under the complete control of their employers and leaving the door wide open for exploitation and abuse.
In the light of the new Justice Department investigation, Swiss authorities are announcing a new inquiry into the process that gave Qatar the cup in 2010. If FIFA board members did indeed accept bribes from Qatar to let it host the 2022 cup, it would show how backroom corruption could have real human consequences.