Qatar’s World Cup legacy rests on shaky ESG foundations

Less than a week before the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar is again facing heightened scrutiny over its social and human rights profile. Several cities in Europe have decided to not put on public screenings of the event, citing human rights concerns. Paris – home to Qatar-owned football club Paris Saint Germain – announced in October that it would join the boycott.

The level of scrutiny over Qatar’s ESG profile has been much more intense than for previous hosts of the event. This owes a lot to the death of an unknown number of migrant workers involved in the construction of World Cup infrastructure. But the rise of ESG more broadly has also been an important factor. As the chart below shows, Qatar’s overall ESG profile is similar to Brazil’s, better than Russia’s, and only slightly behind South Africa’s. Germany stands out among the recent World Cup hosts as the only top performer on our Sovereign ESG Ratings.

A big part of the challenge for Qatar is that although the Word Cup has been a catalyst for a broad range of labour reforms, the legacy of labour rights violations over the last decade will draw international attention and criticism in the run-up, during, and after the event. While there is little Doha can do to change that now, accelerating the implementation of labour rights reforms offers an opportunity to improve the legacy of the Qatar World Cup.

Migrant worker deaths will continue to draw scrutiny and criticism

The single biggest controversy surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup relates to the death of migrant workers involved in the construction of stadiums and other infrastructure related to the event. A lack of accurate data has made it impossible to determine the exact number of deaths that can be attributed to unsafe working conditions, heat stress or other preventable causes. The result has been an unworkable range between 3 and more than 10,000, with neither end of the spectrum likely to be anywhere near the real figure.

On one end of the spectrum some international media have attributed all migrant worker deaths since construction began in earnest in 2015 to Qatar’s awarding of the World Cup without distinguishing between causes of death or whether workers were involved in World Cup-related projects. On the other extreme, the Qatari authorities have reported a total of 38 deaths on construction projects related to the World Cup since it was awarded the event. From these, 35 have been categorised as 'non-work-related'. The majority of deaths among migrant workers in general are attributed to natural causes in official government statistics.

Workers involved in the construction of core World Cup infrastructure have been afforded a higher degree of protection than other migrant workers in Qatar. But attempts to separate deaths related directly to World Cup infrastructure and deaths associated with other infrastructure projects have failed to address the underlying issue: weak labour rights, poor heat stress management, and vaguely defined death certificates have led to an unknown number of preventable deaths among the migrant worker population brought in to build Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure.

Based on the findings of several independent investigations in recent years, as well as independent and Qatari government-commissioned studies, the number of preventable migrant workers deaths since 2010 is likely to be at least in the hundreds.

Labour rights on a positive trajectory – from a low baseline

Heightened scrutiny of Qatar’s labour rights record has played a key part in accelerating labour rights reforms which are moving at a faster pace than in the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. As the chart below shows, Qatar’s performance in several key labour rights indicators has improved over the last year.

A common theme across most of our labour rights indices is that Qatar has seen marked progress in the structure and process pillars (the strength of laws and how well they are implemented). Improvement in the more important outcome pillars (severity and frequency of violations), however, has been weaker. This is mainly because enacting change and verifying improvements will take time. But with independent verification of implementation starting to come through, we expect more improvements across our core labour rights indices during 2023. In May 2022, for example, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) confirmed that implementation of new rules is getting better, including in key areas such as wages, worker representation, and occupational health and safety.

The adoption of several new laws regulating the country’s labour market in August 2020 marked the formal dismantling of the country’s employment-sponsorship system (kafala). Both the International Labour Organization and the ITUC have welcomed the new legislation and have played a central part in implementing the new regulations.

Most importantly, migrant workers no longer require the permission of their employers to change jobs. Another significant change is the introduction of a QAR1,000 (USD275) a month minimum wage which will apply across all sectors and regardless of nationality. New regulations also ban outdoor work during the hours from 10:00 to 15:30 between 1 June and 15 September each year. Previously, the work ban was effective between 11:00 and 13:00, from 15 June to 31 August.

Clear incentives for Qatar to prioritise labour rights reforms

Continued engagement with international labour organisations over the dismantling of the kafala system suggest that conditions for migrant workers will improve – at least in the short term. But the extent to which Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup can remain a catalyst for social and labour rights reform is uncertain. More often than not, hosts of big international sporting events have failed to live up to lofty legacy promises. Ultimately, the outlook over the coming years will depend on the willingness of the Qatari authorities to prioritise labour rights reforms after the world’s attention fades.

There are clear incentives for Qatar to push further on key social and labour rights issues. Crucially, bond markets, equity markets, and foreign investors are paying increasing attention to sovereign ESG performance. There is also little doubt that the next joint World Cup hosts – Mexico, Canada and the United States – will all be scrutinised under an ESG lens.

Torbjorn Soltvedt

Principal Political Analyst