"The Workers Cup" follows one team of migrant workers who are building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and also playing in a soccer tournament of their own organized for the construction workers. Courtesy The Workers Cup LLC
"The Workers Cup"

Who built Qatar’s World Cup stadiums?

David Brancaccio and The Econ Extra Credit Team Nov 3, 2022
Heard on:
"The Workers Cup" follows one team of migrant workers who are building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and also playing in a soccer tournament of their own organized for the construction workers. Courtesy The Workers Cup LLC

World Cup fans will get to know many new names in the weeks ahead: Al Bayt, Al Janoub, Ahmad Bin Ali, Lusail, Khalifa, Al Thumama and let’s not forget good old 974.

These are not players but the venues for the 2022 matches, all within a 34-mile radius of Doha, the capital of Qatar. All but one of these stadiums were built in recent years ahead of the tournament, which starts Nov. 20. The documentary film we’re watching for Econ Extra Credit this month answers an important question: who actually did the work of building these venues, the new team quarters, and the extra hotels for ticketholders?

As the film “The Workers Cup” shows, Qatar’s population was not large enough to supply a sufficient number of workers to build the infrastructure for the games. Instead, the workers were imported, in some cases under false pretenses. As is common throughout the oil-rich countries in the Gulf, it’s largely people from poorer countries who do the manual labor. This is a film in the rich tradition of the work of Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago-based journalist who focused on lifting up the voices of everyday workers.

The fuel for the film is the drama of competition, as we follow an amateur league set up for the employees of the various firms with contracts to build the World Cup infrastructure. We learn about the hopes, dreams and fears of the men who work for the team wearing the colors of a long-time building contractor in Qatar. Workers, including Kevin, Kenneth, Paul and Umesh, left Ghana, Kenya, Nepal, and many other countries for a promise of higher incomes in exchange for hard work. According to the film, many laborers work twelve hours a day, seven days a week in a country where one day of rest per week is required by law. Some workers did not know what they were getting into when they signed up to travel to a distant land, far from family. One suggests he was told signing up for work in Qatar would be a way to earn some money while getting a chance to show off his own fine soccer playing skills to global teams.

Beyond the football and working conditions, there is a question of freedom. How free are workers to quit if the contractors they work for paid to transport and train them? Many don’t have the money to get back from Qatar to, say, Nepal. There is a disturbing sequence in the film in which a worker has been injured, apparently stabbed by a fellow worker. The man suggests the injury was deliberate, some kind of bid by the attacker to appear unhinged enough that he might get sent home.

It is documented that large numbers of workers for the World Cup were charged “recruitment fees” as a condition of employment. Human Rights Watch calls these “exorbitant and illegal” and points to an audit showing these averaged more than $1,300, leading workers to sell off family assets to raise cash or to borrow at high interest rates. This trapped workers into cycles of debt.

Qatar did reform its labor laws in 2017, the year the film was produced. Human rights groups say some progress has been made in improving the rights and conditions of immigrant laborers, including the creation of tribunals to address grievances more quickly. But Human Rights Watch calculates millions may have paid recruitment fees and only about 50,000 workers have been reimbursed so far.

In recent days, Reuters reported that thousands of Asian and African workers living in the capital were evicted from their homes, some with just two hours’ notice. The journalists reported that many of the evictions were in the same areas where soccer fans are likely to stay during the World Cup. Qatar officials said the relocations are not related to the games and that all the displaced have been properly rehoused.

In the coming weeks, the world’s attention will be increasingly focused on Qatar. A coalition of human rights groups are trying to leverage that fact to push a campaign — #PayUpFIFA — for compensation for the recruitment fees and job-related injuries incurred by a population of workers who found themselves in a far-away place with little power.

– David 

Econ Extra Credit selection for November

Name of Film: “The Workers Cup” 

Year of Release: 2017 

Director: Adam Sobel 

Synopsis: Inside the labor camps of Qatar, African and Asian migrant workers building the facilities of the 2022 World Cup compete in a football tournament of their own: The Workers Cup. 

Where can I watch: “The Workers Cup” is available to watch for free on Tubi, and is also on Kanopy for free for some library card holders. It’s available to rent for a fee on Prime Video and Vudu.  

Themes we’ll explore: 

  • The politics of “unskilled” labor 
  • What do countries gain when they host sports competitions at a loss? 
  • The human rights concerns of Qatar’s use of migrant workers   

Is there something you’d like Econ Extra Credit to explore? A question you want answered? Let us know by sending the team an email. We’re at extracredit@marketplace.org.  

Check out all our past selected films on our website.  

We’ll be back next week to unpack more from the film. In the meantime, please check out some of Marketplace’s past coverage on the world’s most beautiful game.  

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