“What about the workers? What about the workers, indeed, sir?” (with apologies to Peter Sellers)

If the last two weeks are anything to go by, the Men’s 2022 Football World Cup Finals are going to keep commentators, journalists and residents of the blogipeligo engaged for the next 9 years or so. Although it is in the nature of these global circuses to generate many terabytes of pontification, prediction and prognostication, this time round it is starting surprisingly early (some of the players in the event may not yet be signed by their player hot-housing academy) and is, as a result, not dealing with the usual matters of whose meta-tarsal is fragile or which team holds up best in the ubiquitous penalty shoot-out. The last two weeks, instead, have seen voices compete to frame a debate about the well-being of those involved in the competition. On the one hand, we have FIFA’s concern about the effects of the weather on the players (as if they have only just realised that Qatar is quite warm in the summer) and on the other hand we have trade unions, human rights NGOs and others calling on FIFA to take action over the alarming number of deaths and the injury rate in Qatar’s construction industry.

As the Guardian columnist Martina Hyde has recently noted, FIFA’s concern about the weather should be read as misdirection; it is an attempt to steer the debate away from both the abysmal working conditions in the Qatari construction industry and from any moral, political or legal responsibility FIFA and its Qatari agents might have for those workers – by one count, at least 40 Nepalese workers have died already this year. When we see a (UK) Conservative Party MP such as Damian Collins publicly suggesting a boycott (in The Huffington Post) the depth of this concern for workers’ wellbeing has extended far beyond its usual constituency. In the context of the physical demands on players as a result of the length of European football’s playing seasons and the array of competitive events beyond national leagues, FIFA’s expressions of concern about player welfare must be welcomed, even if those are expressions are a diversion from a much more alarming set of workplace conditions.

At the same time as this piece of weather-related misdirection is being pulled from Sepp Blatter’s prestidigitator’s hat, he has been abrogating any claims that football’s mega-events act as a force for good. His response to the increasing concern over the conditions of work has been to promise to meet the emir of Qatar to discuss the issue while making clear that in his view it is a problem to be solved by the Qatari construction industry; turkeys voting for Christmas and foxes guarding hen houses come to mind. This is a response worthy of the comedian Peter Seller’s ‘Party Political Speech’. At the same time, FIFA refuses to countenance the ultimate sanction; reopening the question of where this event will be staged: instead, FIFA assures Qatar that it will be the host. The claim to sport’s status as a socially improving agent rings increasingly hollow.

But, let’s take FIFA at its word that there is nothing specific it can do about the employment (a term used loosely, forced labour might be a better label) conditions in Qatar’s construction industry. There is one group of workers for whom FIFA has a much better chance of influencing labour conditions; that is, sport science support workers who repair players, who organise and who maintain their élite sport industry. As an academic working in a sport science (broadly defined) school I am acutely aware that these workers are graduates from my classes, students we have tempted into our programme with claims to make them employable. Very few of these graduates find themselves working in élite sport support, and even those who do seem likely to find themselves in unstable and precarious employment, cobbling together a living income, if they’re lucky, out of several jobs.

I say ‘seem’ because we know very little about conditions of work (let along things as important as labour process) in the sport industries more generally, but if the patchy, circumstantial and anecdotal evidence is much to go by these workers seem to be members of the ‘precariat’, an increasingly popular term to define workers in a wide range of contemporary industries. The term remains disputed and is being continually refined, but it is clearly framed in work by Guy Standing from Bath University in England. Standing argues that the precariat is a class of workers who lack seven basic forms of labour-related security: labour market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security and representation security (see Guy Standing The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class Bloomsbury 2011, esp pp 7-13). These insecurities are unevenly distributed, and the precariat can be seen in conventionally precarious cultural industries, including sport, but is becoming much more widespread.

What concerns me is how little we know about the working world we are sending our graduates into. We have a good understanding of the technical skills of coaching, physical therapy, management, community development, facilities maintenance and the like, but we have little if any real sense of the conditions of labour. Our blindness to what, in some quarters, is known as the labour process – of the way élite sports’ support workers produce value, of their subordination to the demands of a large scale profit seeking industry or of the social character of work and labour in the sport industries – means that we fail to understand work in the sport industries.

What is even more alarming than this failure is the ways that the élite sport industries rely on this precariousness among their workforces. Some élite footballers, for instance, may be offensively well paid which might mitigate their precariousness where their career lasts only as long as their next major injury. Their massage therapists, coaching assistants, football in the community outreach workers and countless others low paid, underpaid and unpaid workers who sustain their industry are, in many cases, as or more precarious with only a tiny portion of the income.

FIFA’s weather-related misdirection, seemingly based on concern for the welfare of its élite players, also helps maintain our failure to see the working conditions of most of the game’s workers (nowhere near as abysmal as the Qatari construction industry – I’m not trying to draw a parallel). FIFA professes concern for worker welfare while washing its hands of any obligation to the most mistreated; when the welfare concern is as close to home as its game’s science support staff it should be less able to slough off its responsibilities. It is up to fans, players, supporters and the rest of us who work in and around those industries to hold FIFA and other governing bodies to task. It is also up to those of us who research in the area to put pressure on these governing bodies to fund research in these questions, and, even if they don’t, to find ways to carry out the research.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the Faculty of Applied Sciences where he is co-lead of the Exercise & Sport Research Centre and Associate Dean Quality & Standards at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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