In the economies of the Arabian Gulf, race, social class, and occupation create a visible stratification. Anyone familiar with the GCC will not be unfamiliar with the stories of worker abuse. Whether the domestic workers found cleaning in many homes, or the men in blue overalls hanging from the scaffolding of new buildings, the physically smaller manual laborer is most likely from an impoverished country. Perhaps there’s nothing new there.
A Middle Eastern country bidding, and being awarded the World Cup, however, is historic. Criticism of the region’s skyrocketing desert temperatures in summer has already caused censure of the FIFA decision to name Qatar as the host country for 2022 and calls for the Cup to be moved or rescheduled for winter.
Earlier this week The Guardian’s incisive report on the deplorable conditions of Nepalese workers in Doha caused a flurry of petitions, comments, and even the relocating of an ambassador. 4000 people may die in the construction of stadiums, The Guardian estimated. The questions around the building of stadiums in Qatar can and should be expanded to larger questions of the exploitation of developing economies in general.
Easy enough to be shocked or feel badly for men driven around the city of Doha in dilapidated school buses with no air conditioning.
Almost a required reaction from the liberal GCC based expat.
Yet how many of us offer the maintenance men a drink of water when they come to fix a toilet, light blub or air conditioner in our homes? The guy who gets 15 QR to wash your car in the blazing heat of summer, does he get a tip? Perhaps it’s easier to be outraged by the World Cup stadiums because they are a tangible symbol of exploitation. Far more difficult to see our insidious participation in the day to day. Easier still is the moral outrage when similar injustice happens to those among us.
Far more difficult to quantify how many are dying all over the world in similar projects. Yes, there are labor issues in Qatar. Yes, it is more difficult to ignore them here than the homeless man with a WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign on M street, in Georgetown, one of Washington DC’s most fashionable neighborhoods.
How many of the undocumented workers, day laborers, who wait in gas stations to be picked up for odd jobs, die in the United States per year?
How many slum children selling candy tap at the window of our taxis at stop lights in Delhi while we look away?
Why is it not as easy to look away in Qatar?
The scale. There are so many more of the men in blue jumpsuits than those with cardboard signs.
The visibility. Even when these men take off their blue overalls on the weekend, they cannot blend in, the way a plumber can change out of uniform and go about his business.
The time. We like to think of economic exploitation, like racism, or gender discrimination, as the ghosts of our parents (or even grandparents’) pasts. But inequity persists.
The fact is, economic exploitation is not new or unique to the Gulf, nor is this the first growing economy to use migrant workers. Think of New York City, a place where present day real estate is worth more than what the average worker who built a skyscraper there probably made in his lifetime.
The talk swirling around Qatar is reminiscent of the protests when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics. Activists objected to the China as a host country with a deplorable human rights record. A country that conscripted workers to build its largest feature, the only human erected object visible from space: the Great Wall of China. Exploitation of those weaker, smaller, and more needy than us is as old as the human experience.
What has changed, thankfully, is the ability to engage the rule of law as a protective mechanism.
Examples abound of how international sporting events harm as much as they entertain; from country to country, year after year.
Yes, the juggling of the desire to be global players comes along with the scrutiny of being on the global stage. Without such a stage, these questions would never be asked. And men like the sixteen year old, who forged documents to work in Qatar, would continue to lose their lives as part of a silent army.
Our job as spectators and conscious citizens in our day to day lives is support whoever we can, however we can. Not to relish a self-assigned role as a superior being passing judgment on societies in transition (as seems to be the current popular strain of neo-imperialism).
If there were no World Cup 2022, would the world care about Nepali workers?
We can blame indifferent governments, greedy business owners, or heartless employers. But in the meantime, for the person waiting for a shred of humanity, nothing has changed while we conduct our esoteric discussion.
Give the bus driver who has been waiting for your guests all night a chance to eat dinner.
Teach your domestic worker, who speaks three (or more languages), how to read English, five words at a time.
Do the good you can. The law will catch up eventually.
In the meantime, you may be the next best thing for the guy holding a bottle of water and a banana. You know, the one waiting behind your mountain of groceries in the checkout line.