FIFA’s Continuing Controversial Path
Human rights concerns surrounding the 2034 World Cup host selection
Despite facing criticism on possible human rights violations, Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup last year. The allegations included substandard working conditions for migrant workers and a breach of their fundamental labour rights. Even though numerous human rights organisations tried to raise awareness for the situation, the World Cup still took place. Their efforts were not completely in vain, since this kicked off a cooperation program between the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Government of Qatar. To delve deeper into the Qatar situation, read our previous blog.
FIFA is yet again considering granting the organisation of the World Cup to a country with little regard to human rights, with all the dangers to the breach of fundamental rights this entails. FIFA has always pledged alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) when selecting their host. They have however failed to meet their own standard in the past when it came to Qatar and Russia. Last year, FIFA updated its human rights due diligence in the bidding process which now requires bidders to “engage with human rights stakeholders” and allow independent organisations to monitor the human rights situation in the country. Now that Saudi Arabia, another country with a poor human rights situation, is the sole bidder for the 2034 FIFA World Cup, it remains the question whether FIFA will follow its own directive.
Saudi Arabia, an ILO member state since 1976, has ratified a total of 18 conventions of which six are fundamental conventions. This leaves four fundamental conventions that have not been ratified: ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, ILO Convention No. 98 on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, ILO Convention No. 155 on Occupational Safety and Health and ILO Convention No. 187 on Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health. These conventions protect integral aspects of fair labour practices. Although these are core labour standards, the absence of ratifications may raise concerns about workers’ rights and labour conditions in the context of hosting a major event such as the FIFA World Cup.
The specific concerns regarding the human rights situation in Saudi-Arabia have been outlined by Amnesty International. Like in Qatar, migrant workers in Saudi Arabia work under the kafala system. This system - that requires someone to seek a ‘sponsor’ in order to be able to work in the country - places the workers in a vulnerable position of dependency, that could result in limited rights and protections. Numerous reforms have been deemed to be insufficient. The poor labour conditions continue and highlight a pressuring need for change to ensure the worker’s safety and wellbeing. Additionally, the worker’s right to collective bargaining has been severely restricted by the government’s policies. This hampers the empowerment of workers to collectively voice their concerns and negotiate fair labour conditions. Saudi Arabia aims to host major sport events such as the FIFA World Cup to improve its international reputation giving it the appearance of concealing the human rights situation, known as sportwashing
These poor labour conditions have been brought to the attention of the ILO, after which the ILO signed a letter of intent with the Saudi Arabia government at the 111th International Labour Conference in June of 2023. This letter introduced a three-year-programme in which the ILO will guide the Saudi Arabia government in improving labour conditions and ensuring the implementation of the fundamental labour rights. The ILO thus once again demonstrates its value in terms of protecting core labour rights, even apart from its supervisory system.
FIFA’s decision-making in awarding the hosting of the World Cup to Qatar and now potentially Saudi Arabia raises concerns about their human rights due diligence. While FIFA has updated its human rights policies for the bidding process, ensuring the prioritisation and proper addressing of human rights considerations for the 2034 FIFA World Cup remains critical.