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The cheapest World Cup seats cost more than a week of wages for the migrant workers who built them

Reforms recently increased Qatar’s minimum wage, but migrant laborer wages are still low.

To build its seven new World Cup stadiums, Qatar relied heavily on the labor of migrant workers over the last decade. Most of those laborers — subjected to hours in the desert heat and incredibly low wages — likely cannot afford to attend a game in the very buildings they made.

Qatar did implement a new minimum wage in 2021 of 1,000 Qatari riyals a month, or $275. But for the laborers working the maximum allowed weeks of 48 hours, it would take 62 hours of minimum wage to get a seat in even the cheapest section with an obstructed view at $81. For a seat in that same section with an unobstructed view, it would take more than 150 hours of minimum-wage labor.

“Depending on how you add up everything … this World Cup could end up having total costs more than every other World Cup, Winter Olympics and Summer Olympics combined,” said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at Holy Cross University.

Very little of the money Qatar spent actually went to the workers who built the stadiums

But controversy has surrounded how little of that enormous figure has been spent to pay the migrant workers who built the stadiums and fulfilled other essential functions leading up to and during the tournament.

These numbers have some asking whether it’s fair that the people who were at the heart of the infrastructure required for Qatar to pull off the World Cup are not likely to be able to afford the event.


Qatar depends on migrant workers for the World Cup and more

About 95 percent of Qatar’s private sector workers are immigrants, said Max Tuñón, head of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Qatar office. Those workers are inherently more vulnerable to exploitation than locals, who can look for different work if conditions and pay at one job are poor.

“There’s this other component of exploiting vulnerable, marginalized people in poorer countries which makes it that much worse,” said Stacy-Lynn Sant, a University of Michigan sports management professor.

Sportswashing: Why countries host these costly events

For all Qatar’s expenses and the sacrifices of migrant laborers, it’s still too early to say what payoff there will be from hosting the tournament, but research suggests those costs are typically not justified, Sant said.

The motivation to host events like the World Cup is less to earn financial capital and more about soft power, what Matheson calls “sportswashing.” The goal of sportswashing is to gain future political power, tourism or other forms of influence through the visibility that comes with hosting these major events.

“In the case of Qatar, however, the whole sportswashing has failed miserably,” Matheson said — from the allegations of corruption that earned it the bid to the country’s conservative views on LGBTQ rights and its treatment of migrant workers.

Qatar’s workforce is built on migrants

Qatar’s reliance on migrant workers isn’t new. The spotlight of the World Cup has simply highlighted those issues.

Recent reforms have had some impact, including the 2021 minimum wage increase and 2017 reform of the kafala system, the sponsorship system for migrant workers. According to the ILO, 280,000 workers saw their wages increase, and the kafala reforms allowed nearly 350,000 migrant workers to change jobs. Previously, workers needed permission from their employers to change jobs or leave the country. Still, wages and kafala restrictions remain problems and there is progress to be made in implementing the reforms, Tuñón acknowledged.

Tuñón hopes that the spotlight on Qatar will highlight exploitation of migrant workers globally, not just in the Gulf.

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