The Blog

Refer-REEEEE! Crying Foul Over the Qatar World Cup and Workers Who Don't Drive Sports Cars

My reading habits being rather gadfly-ish (ie all over the place), the other day I picked up a book lying around at work called Fathers, Sons And Football. It's by Colin Shindler, who also wrote the excellently-named Manchester United Ruined My Life. The Fathers book is about the Summerbee family dynasty of footballers, including Mike Summerbee of sixties Manchester City and England World Cup fame.

OK, all you non-footballing types probably couldn't care less and are about to stop reading this post. Don't! Here's why the book is interesting. First, it's an insight into how modern mega-rich elite footballers have come to be the bizarrely overpaid people they are. The book charts the rise of the sixties celebrity players - Mike Summerbee, George Best and Denis Law, driving sports cars and hanging out at after-hours drinking clubs with Manchester-based actors like Ian McShane, becoming part of the "Swinging Sixties" scene alongside David Bailey, The Beatles and Terence Stamp. But Shindler also looks at the cost of this excess in terms of family relationships, while putting the whole thing into a useful historical context (Mike's father George, a lower-league player in the 1930s and 40s, earned no more than around £8 a week during his entire playing career, less than a provincial bank manager at the time).

Still not convinced? Well what about this for an ending to Shindler's book?

"Behind the fantasy world of glamour and wealth ... created by the unholy alliance of greedy football people and rapacious media jackals, lies another world, one that is distinguished by crushed dreams, broken relationships and financial penury. We call it real life."

Blimey. It's not all MOTD boosterism now is it? Well, this resonates with me. I am, I must confess, a lapsed football fan these days. Once fairly ardent - I can readily identify with Shindler's reminiscences of a football-obsessed childhood - my interest in the game, beautiful or not, has dwindled and dwindled. Except ... when I read stuff like Shindler's pay-off line, or Hunter Davies' excellent New Statesman columns on the petty vanities of some modern footballers, my interest in footie rekindles. (Yeah, it kind of reboots. Sorry).

The same is true on reading a new Amnesty report on the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar (see coverage here, here and here) many of whom could soon be toiling to build the gleaming new stadia for the 2022 World Cup. So in time-honoured football-loving fashion, here are the vital match stats from the Amnesty report:

  • The FIFA World Cup stadiums programme in Qatar is valued at £2.5bn
  • Many construction workers in Qatar earn only £100 (600 riyals) a month
  • There are 1.4m migrant workers in Qatar, 94% of the country's entire workforce
  • Qatar has well in excess of 2,500 construction companies (2,519 according to 2010 data; since then a construction boom has enveloped Qatar)
  • Construction companies in Qatar employ at least half a million foreign national workers (503,518 according to 2010 figures)
  • There are only 150 labour inspectors in Qatar, for a worker population of nearly 1.5m (ie one inspector for 10,000 workers a piece); update: yesterday the Qatari authorities said they were appointing another 14 inspectors, which by my calculations would take the ratio to one inspector per 9,317 workers
  • Working days can be 18 hours long, with only a few five-minute breaks to eat and drink
  • Many workers are made to work in Qatar's 45-degree summer temperatures despite it being against the country's labour laws to work in the summer between 11.30am and 3pm
  • It is routine for migrant workers to sleep 10-15 in small, dilapidated rooms in run-down worker accommodation zones
  • Out of 210 migrant workers in Qatar spoken to by Amnesty, only one still had possession of his own passport (passport confiscation by "sponsoring" Qatari employers being the norm)
  • Numerous workers in Qatar go unpaid by employers for six months at a time and many are prevented from actually leaving the country for months on end

Hmm. Roll on 2022, eh? In nine years' time the world's football-crazy TV audiences might (might) be watching veteran England captain Wayne Rooney leading out his team of would-be world-beaters, featuring seasoned performers like Jack Wilshere and Andros Townsend. But by then the World Cup stadia will all be built, along with the shiny new high-rise hotels, the state-of-the-art rail-links and the four-lane connecting highways for all those top-of-the-range executive-class cars carrying FIFA officials and politicians to the matches. Naturally viewers won't see anything of the bloodied, sweated labour that actually erected these footballing pleasure-domes. They won't see the backbreaking work carried out while the workers were often being systematically stripped of their rights and then summarily discarded when the job was done. Indeed, FIFA's main concern seems to be that the footballerswon't be required to play the World Cup in Qatar's summer heat (the regular sight of construction workers toiling in Qatar's blistering sun doesn't seem to faze it quite so much). And meanwhile the deathtoll will surely climb and climb as 2022 approaches. Perhaps FIFA could widen its field of concern a little ...

But are the Qatari authorities actually listening to this mounting chorus of concern? Apparently, yes, they are. Yesterday, they said that Amnesty's concerns would be fed into a recently-announced investigation into alleged labour abuse. Let's see what that delivers. Hopefully it won't lead to the Qatari government giving up on promised reforms and instead - as one satirist said today - simply buying up Amnesty itself and transforming it into a "luxury mall and residential complex".

Finally, back to the all-important topic of my recent reading habits. You'll be fascinated to learn that before the Amnesty report and the Shindler book it was Pushkin's The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (I said my reading is quite varied) and Robert Roberts' Ragged Schooling, his excellent memoir of working-class life in early-twentieth-century Manchester. I think this is relevant! A long time ago I used to live in Manchester myself, nestling into the cosy student bohemia of old worker houses in the city's Moss Side area. Needless to say it was close enough to the Maine Road ground to hear the roar of the Man City crowds on match days. Football haunted me then and still does now. Refer-REEEEEE!