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Slaves to Soccer: At World Cup, Workers Lose

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In a debate against Stephen Douglas, then-Illinois Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln challenged Americans, "If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature."

At the very least, he argued, it is our moral obligation to refrain from actively supporting slavery. Yet, a century and a half after Lincoln's presidency, the United States funds some of the world's worst offenders of workers' rights--the Gulf States.

Saudi Arabia, for example, requires its 7.5 million foreign migrant workers to obtain permission from a "sponsor" in order to enter or leave the country. This policy gives sponsors control over the lives of workers to the degree that Human Rights Watch has called "near-slavery." A disturbing wealth of evidence shows these workers are often underpaid, abused, raped and even locked in their places of work indefinitely. Multiple maids have even been beheaded.

What attracted these workers to Saudi Arabia, of course, is the country's massive fortune -- largely derived from oil sales to the United States and Europe, as is the case with a handful of other countries in the Arabian Peninsula.

Sometimes the jobs themselves are American-sponsored.

In Abu Dhabi, six thousand workers were commissioned for the construction of New York University's posh new campus. Many of the workers were forced to live in labor camps where visitors were prohibited and workers often abused.

Similar abuses have been reported in nearby countries like Kuwait, where 30 percent of the population is made up of non-citizen migrant workers, and Bahrain, home of one of the largest U.S. naval bases, which employs nearly half a million harshly treated migrants.

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5 Examples of Extreme Worker Abuse in the Gulf States
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Warning: These videos are extremely graphic.

Perhaps, one might reasonably think, that while these abuses may be hard to look at, they are simply an ugly but necessary part of the industrialization of these burgeoning Middle Eastern nations. Not so.

Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist known for his work on globalization, penned an op-ed about what was at the time a symbol of poor worker conditions in the third world -- a giant trash heap in the Philippines that had become known as "Smokey Mountain." Krugman argues that while the images of workers squatting in huts on the garbage mountain made Western onlookers uncomfortable, it was morally acceptable for two reasons:

(1) A bad job at a low wages is better than being unemployed; even this harsh reality is better than the alternative, and

(2) Employing these workers creates competition for jobs which in turn leads to economic growth and higher wages in the long term.

Yet, neither of these points apply to the migrant worker abuses in the Gulf. They are not treated better in the Gulf than in the places from which they came. Whether the mistreated maid in the video above was from Ethiopia, India, Nepal, or elsewhere, her being beaten in Saudi Arabia is far worse than being unemployed in her home country. Clearly, violent abuse and forced labor cannot constitute an increase in the quality of life for these workers.

Moreover, the system in place does not promote natural growth and competition for jobs, but is a result of the newfound oil wealth on which these Middle Eastern countries are built. Due to the harsh practices depriving these workers of citizenship and the right to free movement in and out of the country, they do not create real competition for jobs. If the current supply of workers is insufficient, the government will simply import more workers from Africa and Asia -- and their wages will remain the same. A country cannot build an economy by restricting movement and blocking naturalization.

Thus, the abuse of foreign workers in the Gulf States is not simply an ugly side-effect of economic growth; it is a regression of workers' rights.

And so far, the world has chosen to address these moral wrongs by awarding a Gulf state -- Qatar -- with the great honor of hosting the 2022 World Cup.

Hosting the World Cup, like hosting the Olympics, is a two-fold privilege. First, it is a symbolic gathering meant to bring together the nations of the world in brotherhood and celebrate the many cultures present. A large part of that honor is the recognition of the host country as a praiseworthy member among the nations.

Second, it serves as an economic opportunity to build up a large sports entertainment infrastructure in the host country and a chance to show off the most beautiful parts of the country.

However, the stadiums, hotels and new roads are built by migrant workers desperate for money. A major British newspaper, The Guardian, has estimated that up to 4,000 of these workers will die building the infrastructure for the World Cup. (This estimate is based on the fact that 1,100 migrants have died working on other projects in Qatar since 2010) Those who don't die will largely be employed in forced labor, will be underpaid, and won't see their wages till after a year of working. Past workers in Qatar have reported having their passports confiscated, being denied drinking water in the desert heat, and the suspension of their salaries to ensure they don't flee.

The Qatari government has recently pledged to implement limited reforms regarding workers' rights in response to international pressure. They appear, however, to be far from sufficient and it remains to be seen whether the attempt is genuine on the part of the government. Past reforms in neighboring countries have proved relatively ineffective.

By glorifying the world's worst human rights offenders and endorsing them to host public displays for an international audience, we help countries like Qatar keep the profitable business of slave-keeping alive.

So, as you watch the beautiful graphics of the inevitably suave animation of the World Cup promo celebrating diversity stop and think. Ask yourself if America should support the glorification of a World Cup built on the abuse of migrant workers.

As long as America and its allies fund the economies of these countries through the oil trade, it ought to be more cognizant of the abuses taking place across the Gulf States. It is the responsibility of the United States and the Western world to withdraw its support from the World Cup in Qatar. We must look through the façade of glamour and celebration to see, like Lincoln did, our obligation to avoid perpetuating this injustice.

Joshua Stadlan, a rising Junior at Princeton University, contributed to the writing of this article.