Qatar 2022's Modern Slavery Critics Must Look Closer To Home
British journalists and media commentators haven't put a fraction of the effort into examining the situation back home.
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: BBC FIFA World Cup coverage on television screens at Flat Iron Square ... [+] on November 20, 2022 in London, England. The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 starts on 20 October 2022 with Qatar vs Ecuador kicking off the tournament after the opening ceremony at Al Bayt Stadium in Doha. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)Getty Images
At his closing address for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino couldn't escape the dark clouds that have hung over the tournament since the day it was announced. Determined to focus on the positive, soccer's governing body's boss rolled into an audience with the media armed with a familiar soundbite; this was the 'best World Cup ever.' 'The World Cup has been an incredible success on all fronts,' the president told reporters. 'The main one being the fans, the behavior, the joyful atmosphere, the bringing of people together. The fans meeting the Arab world, it has been very important for the future of all of us.' Revenue has also boomed, Infantino was proud to announce, the $7.5 billion earned in the 2018-2022 cycle was a billion more than last time and even better is to come, the next four years are anticipated to earn $11 billion. But, as journalists have the habit of doing, uncomfortable questions were thrown in his direction that disrupted the narrative he'd planned to deliver.
Again he was asked to clarify the number of workers who had died in the creation of the tournament.
'I think that every person dying is one person too many. It's a tragedy. It's a tragedy for the family, it's a tragedy for everyone involved,' he replied.
'When we speak about figures, we always have to be very precise in order not to create impressions of something which is actually something else.' As ever, this answer did little to quell the unease amongst large sections of the western media who have not shied away from stories about the plight of migrant workers during the tournament.
There was considerably less rage than compared to the opening address when he discussed being bullied as a child for his red hair and accused the West of hypocrisy, but it could hardly be described as well received. Amongst the nations whose media has actively discussed the 'asterisk' around proceedings in Qatar is Britain.
National broadcaster the BBC led the way from the start, choosing to show a film about the issues that have blighted the competition rather than the opening ceremony and had host Gary Lineker deliver a monologue that labeled it 'the most controversial World Cup in history.' 'Ever since FIFA chose Qatar back in 2010, the smallest nation to have hosted football's greatest competition has faced some big questions,' he told viewers, 'from accusations of corruption in the bidding process to the treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums, where many lost their lives.'
This approach divided opinion, the ever-outspoken media personality Piers Morgan attacked the BBC's decision on Twitter calling it 'outrageously disrespectful [...] virtue-signaling guff.'
'If they're that appalled, they should bring home their vast army of employees and spare us this absurd hypocrisy,' he added.
While Morgan might have gone a bit far in his criticism of one of the world's most influential media organizations, the extent to which certain sections of the press discovered a conscience about the plight of migrant workers when Qatar 2022 rolled was galling.
As a journalist who spent years investigating modern slavery and exploitation in UK construction, hearing colleagues discuss these issues like they've just been discovered and don't exist in Britain is enraging.
Modern slavery in the UKLONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 14: People marching against modern slavery through London wearing ... [+] face masks representing the silence of modern slaves in forced labour and sexual exploitation on October 14, 2017 in London, England. PHOTOGRAPH BY Mathew Chattle / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Mathew Chattle/Future Publishing via Getty Images)Future Publishing via Getty Images
In April of this year, Britain's Anti-Slavery Commissioner released a report about the 'risks and drivers of labor exploitation in the construction sector.'
The document analyses a single successful Metropolitan Police investigation, Operation Cardinas, which took down an organized crime group whose slaves had worked in the supply chains of major construction projects in London and southeast England for close to 10 years.
Covering the sector at the time of the crimes. it was a case I knew well and attended large parts of the trial.
In many ways Operation Cardinas was an outlier, with modern slavery cases like this it was very hard to get reliable witnesses. Workers who'd been deprived of food, had their documents seized and forced to work for no money were often terrified of cooperating with authorities.
The strong anti-immigration sentiment within the UK didn't help, nor did stricter post-Brexit rules around migrant workers which, given crippling construction labor market shortages, were a huge boost to the black market.
Then there was the culture of secrecy around any discoveries relating to modern slavery on UK projects.
When people found the indicators of exploitation often they didn't report it, to the extent that even at the top of organizations, the information leaders had was wrong.
Over the course of my reporting, I came across a CEO of a $1 billion firm who had happily told members of the UK Parliament at a Select Committee hearing there was 'zero' modern slavery in their supply chain. I discovered just three months earlier a man hired for a project run by a subsidiary of the CEO's company had been convicted of modern slavery offenses.
The Anti-Slavery Commissioner's report disclosed that Operation Cardinas had found 'at least 33 companies' who'd been paying the modern slavery OCG transactions ranging from $100s to $100,000s.
This, the report investigators believed, was actually 'only a fraction' of those who were impacted by the gang.
Although I had managed to find the names of some of the sites these people worked, from 2,500 housing developments to upmarket London apartment buildings, neither the police nor the commissioner was willing to release the full list.
The report was totally ignored by the mainstream media and there have been no questions asked of either the industry or the government as a result.
But based on my investigations, I would suggest that the issue of slave labor in UK construction is far greater than anyone is willing to admit.
Can Britain lecture Qatar?DOHA, QATAR - OCTOBER 23: Workers stand on the construction site of a new office building in the ... [+] budding new financial district on October 23, 2011 in Doha, Qatar. Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup football competition and is slated to tackle a variety of infrastructure projects, including the construction of new stadiums. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)Getty Images
It would be wrong to make any direct comparisons to Qatar, but given the number of years Britain has been building infrastructure similar to the set of projects delivered for the World Cup, the nation needs to examine itself before lecturing others about migrant worker exploitation.
It's admirable that journalists have continued to ask Infantino difficult questions about terrible conditions faced by migrant workers, the question is why are the equivalent leaders back in the UK looking after housing or infrastructure not being made to squirm in the same way?
Yes, there is the fact that the Kafala system, which controls migrant workers in some Middle Eastern countries, legitimizes practices that would be illegal in Britain.
But British journalists and media commentators haven't put a fraction of the effort into examining the situation back home.
As a result, I would argue the majority of British people are apathetic to the presence of modern slavery and a substantial section of the population accept it.
The most popular slogan in the UK's anti-modern slavery movement is that the crime 'hides in plain sight.'
In other words, people see evidence of modern slavery consistently, they have their cars washed and gardens cleared by people clearly being exploited, but don't act.
If modern slavery is visible to the British media in Qatar, it should highlight its presence in the UK too.