When top soccer officials meet Tuesday in Doha, they are expected to finally make formal what has long been expected: that the 2022 World Cup will be played not in the traditional summer months but instead in November and December. That, of course, is the result of handing the 2022 tournament to Qatar, where simmering hot temperatures that reach well into the triple digits makes watching soccer, much less playing it, too dangerous in the summer.
The decision to move to winter is not without controversy. The English Premier League is expected to ask for concessions in exchange for the disruptions a winter World Cup will pose to its schedule, and television partners, other soccer federations, and even top FIFA officials have expressed opposition to the move. Nevertheless, the move is almost certainly going to happen.
This will address the temperature problem for players and fans, though it could still cause smaller issues. Doha’s November and December high temperatures range from 75 to 90 degrees, roughly similar to June and July high temperatures in Rio de Janeiro and other parts of Brazil, where players suffered through heat problems during the 2014 World Cup and FIFA had to institute mid-match water breaks in some of the hottest matches. It might not be 120 degrees in Qatar (or as humid as it was in Brazil), but it still could get hot.
But while this has been treated as the major problem (corruption aside) with this tournament, moving it to winter won’t address an even bigger issue with Qatar’s World Cup: that the $200 billion in construction projects the nation has planned around this World Cup bid is still largely reliant on migrant workers who work in squalor and, according to international human rights and labor organizations, slave-like conditions.
Qatar’s kafala labor system puts severe limits on workers’ rights, especially in a country where migrants make up 90 percent of the population and workforce. Moving the World Cup to winter won’t give those workers a break from the heat. Completing Qatar’s ambitious construction plans will require them to work in the summer months FIFA wants to avoid, and labor groups have said that Qatar’s heat exacerbates the poor working conditions that already exist. In a report released last year, the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that 4,000 migrant workers would die on World Cup-related projects absent significant labor reforms, with the heat a major contributor to those deaths (Qatar has disputed that figure, saying that its rate of worker deaths is normal).
“They are dying because of these work conditions, because of the heat, because there is no safety measures applied, some of them hydration. It is anything but normal,” human rights activist Husain Adbulla told HBO’s Real Sports last year.
Qatar says it is making incremental changes to the labor system to improve working conditions and rights. It announced reforms last winter and said it would end its kafala system, which gives workers few rights to dispute pay, change jobs, or even leave the country. Qatar says these are substantial changes, and FIFA has heralded the progress toward reform. But ITUC, one of the biggest groups pushing for reform in Qatar, called the changes “cosmetic,” saying that “modern slavery will still exist in Qatar” unless the reforms went even farther.
Amnesty International has since issued a report accusing Qatar of slow-walking the reforms, and early returns don’t look good: despite the promise of change, Nepalese migrants working on World Cup projects died at a rate of one every two days in 2014, The Guardian reported in December, and there are estimates that if other groups of migrant workers were included, “the toll would almost certainly be more than one a day.” The Guardian also reported in November that Qatar has used North Korean workers in a practice akin to state-sponsored slavery. The larger labor problems facing Qatari workers remain, and the heat will only continue to make them worse.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter has said his organization will continue to monitor Qatar’s progress on the labor front, and Qatar’s labor ministry continues to insist that it intends “to effect meaningful and lasting change for the benefit of all those who live and work in Qatar.” It remains unclear what if anything FIFA has done to encourage reforms or what it will do going forward, especially if the promised changes never occur or have little effect. FIFA has announced that it will consider a nation’s human rights record in the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup and beyond. But that, obviously, is too late to help workers in Qatar who won’t benefit merely from playing the World Cup in a different month.