It is the topic par excellence right now: The World Cup 2022 in Qatar, and the first World Cup taking place in a Middle Eastern country. In many ways, this World Cup has been unique, dominating the media landscape for good and bad reasons.
But while some people dive right into the football spirit, taking their football shirts and merch out of the closet and preparing their mid-game snacks, others have made it a point to boycott this year’s FIFA World Cup. “Will you watch the matches or boycott the World Cup?” is a question that has defined the event - not least because of the number of headlines surrounding the deaths of migrant workers.
In 2021, The Guardian was among the first news outlets to claim the death of more than 6500 migrant workers in Qatar in connection with the World Cup infrastructure projects, while the Qatar World Cup Chief estimates the number to be around 400 to 500. Since 2017, Qatar has been working together with the ILO (International Labour Organization) to improve working conditions, having rolled out the first phase of a technical cooperation programme which implements labour reforms and is now in its second phase. Nevertheless, these deaths remain irreversible, regardless of the specific death-toll figures. Especially for family and loved ones, each and every single life lost is invaluable.
Amongst others, the German national football team has been one of the first to voice criticism for the breach of human rights in 2021, by wearing football shirts that together form the word “Human Rights.” But amid all the World Cup hustle and bustle, other voices accusing the West of double standards are getting louder and louder. But is the West really acting hypocritically? In the case of Germany—a nation with its own complex migrant labour history—their recent (and past) political actions serve as a prologue against the background of their own nomination as host country for the next biggest international football tournament, the UEFA EURO 2024.
Case 1: Germany’s History of Migrant Labour
Qatar is not the first and only country to profit off migrant labour. This is a practice that has been around for centuries and which led countries like Germany or the Netherlands to be as multicultural as they are today. In the 1950s, after World War II, Germany’s insufficient workforce prompted the government to conclude agreements with countries like Italy, Portugal, Turkey, Morocco and many more, calling on their citizens to come to Germany for work. The so-called “Guest Worker Programme.”
Eventually, 14 million migrant workers in total helped rebuild Germany’s economy into what it is today. While 11 million proceeded to return to their home countries, approximately 3 million stayed in Germany, and continued their lives there. It is a history shaped by hard and often dirty work, bad accommodation, and an overall lack of integration and education initiatives. The effects of these practices still echo among many within German society today, manifested through inequality of opportunities or hate attacks, like the racially motivated 2020 attack that killed 9 people in Hanau.
Companies like Germany’s biggest pig slaughterhouse, “Tönnies,” are also being criticised for the way they treat their workers. In Tönnies’ case, workers were reportedly hired from countries like Romania through subcontractors. These types of work contracts allow for mass accommodation, low wages, unjustified terminations, and dismissed safety precautions for higher efficiency, leading to physical injuries. The scandal was revealed in 2020 during the pandemic, intensifying the effects on the individual workers involved.
Case 2. Qatar and the Quest for Gas
Germany’s vice chancellor and federal minister for economics and climate protection Robert Habeck called holding the World Cup in Qatar a “daft idea” which can only be explained through corruption. It is also noteworthy that Habeck himself has travelled to Qatar seeking gas and oil contracts, even bowing in front of Qatar’s trade minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. During the beginning of the World Cup, Germany secured an LPG Deal with Qatar effective in 2026 for an initial period of 15 years.
These juxtaposed German views—varying between moral critique against, and financial support for Qatar—underline the mixed priorities within Germany’s self-interests, particularly the ways these priorities exist among the current gas and energy crisis. Nevertheless, there seems to be a notable lack of nuance and understanding from (mainly Western) news and social media towards Qatar’s similarly complex interests: Germany is also willing to make moral compromises in the name of their overarching political and economic interests.
Case 3. Weapon Export & Saudi Arabia
In October 2022, after 7 years of war, the 6-month long ceasefire in Yemen ended. Yemen is a country that counts around 380.000 deaths, 4 million refugees, and 19 million people suffering from hunger. It is a country that has served as a battlefield for Saudi-Arabia’s proxy war for many years, where hospitals, schools and kindergartens are routinely bombarded. Now, close to the expiration of the conflict’s most recent ceasefire, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Saudi-Arabia at the end of September, negotiating German economic interests in the context of the energy crisis.
Closely after, the German coalition announced the approval of arms exports to Saudi-Arabia. It specifically concerns the equipment and armament of combat aircraft as well as ammunition, the exact same weapon systems used in Yemen before. This decision constituted a breach of the German coalition agreement, a coalition based on elections from September 2021 by the German people. Once again, this highlights the German government’s own policy-based moral compromises aimed at foregoing human rights concerns over the procurement of gas and hydrogen for its own people. It shows that acting in self-interest is not exclusive to Middle Eastern politics.
Even in the context of sports, judging based on the cases presented previously, Germany’s upcoming host nomination for the UEFA European Championship in 2024 does not have a clean human rights slate. Nevertheless, the criticism for Qatar persists as a predominant Western media topic. These media biases can divert attention from equally important issues and have an impactful effect on individuals and society, inciting and intensifying hostilities, and reinforcing unnecessary or unhelpful stereotypes.
This culture of focused blame that is maintained is useless and not healthy, unless everyone tries to put real action and commitment behind their words. In this ever-so-globalised world we live in, it must start with educating ourselves and advocating for all human rights issues around the world, no matter the current trends in the media. In the end, human rights are nothing we can pick and choose from.
By Sara Khermjioui