The ‘Disposable Populations’ of Sports

Amid the whirlwind of the recent athlete strike wave against racism, Human Rights Watch issued a report on a different set of workers in the world of sports who are also struggling but lack the star power of the Milwaukee Bucks or tennis star Naomi Osaka. The report detailed how guest workers in Qatar, who have been toiling in abject conditions to build stadiums, hotels, and transportation for the 2022 men’s soccer World Cup, continue to experience horrific exploitation.

The coronavirus—and the Trump administration’s stratospheric incompetence in the face of it—has flung what Angela Davis calls “disposable populations” smack into the public eye. We see this crude formulation in Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s suggestion to Tucker Carlson that it’s perfectly acceptable to sacrifice the elderly in order to juice the economy and to preserve “the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.”

The sports world has long been fueled by “disposable populations,” whether they are football players whose lives have been turned inside-out by brain damage, baseball players in the Dominican Republic who are sent to “academies” as children only to be cast aside when their talent is found lacking, or the countless college athletes who are treated like revenue-generating chattel. “Disposable populations,” which, Davis asserts, are comprised largely of “populations of people of color and immigrant populations from the countries of the Global South,” are routinely gobbled up and spit out by the sports industrial complex.

Take the Qatar World Cup. It has been a labor rights nightmare from day one. Migrant workers comprise about 95 percent of Qatar’s labor force, journeying from places like Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Nepal, and the Philippines. Upon arrival, they have been subjected to the kafala system, whereby their work visas are tied to their sponsoring employers, who control whether workers can change jobs or leave the country, thereby thrusting them into vulnerable situations that are rife with abuse.

The kafala system has been a recipe for oppression and, as labor reporter Michelle Chen has noted, “the human toll is stunning.” Data from Nepal’s government found that more than 1,400 Nepali workers died working in Qatar between 2009 and 2019. Qatar has promised to abolish the kafala system, but the Human Rights Watch report found a massive chasm between word and deed. Workers continue to have their passports confiscated by their employers, often after forking over hefty fees that are an integral part of widespread, deceptive recruitment processes. Employers routinely abrogate labor contracts and underpay workers—one worker in Qatar who started in June 2019 received his first paycheck, for $228, three months later.

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