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Saudi labour rights under the spotlight ahead of World Cup vote

Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Stadium in Qiddiya, Saudi Arabia

Featured image credit: Populous

The Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) organisation is filing two formal complaints with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) against Saudi Arabia, which is poised to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup, over the alleged use of forced labour among migrant workers.   

The BWI’s complaints refer to “severe human rights abuses” and wage theft involving at least 21,000 construction workers by various Saudi construction companies, but mainly two that are now bankrupt.

The BWI has claimed that living and working conditions among Saudi Arabia’s migrant workforce are “akin to forced labour”. The ILO has been urged to carry out a thorough investigation.

Following the BWI’s complaint, trade unions in South and Southeast Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa, as well as human rights organisations who have identified and documented similar violations in Saudi Arabia, have supported the call for an ILO investigation.

These include Amnesty International, Equidem, FairSquare, Human Rights Watch and Solidarity Centre. The alleged human rights abuses include the retention of passports and identity documents, restrictions on terminating and exiting employment contracts, and the withholding of wages.

Saudi Arabia is set to be awarded hosting rights for the 2034 FIFA World Cup after Australia opted against bidding for the competition. The bidding process was launched in October last year, and Saudi Arabia immediately announced its intention to enter a proposal.

Following Australia’s withdrawal, Saudi Arabia is the only declaration of interest for the 2034 tournament. Only countries in Oceania and Asia were eligible to bid after FIFA confirmed that the 2030 World Cup would be played in six countries spanning three continents: Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Ambet Yuson, BWI general secretary, said: “Saudi Arabia, where trade unions are banned, blatantly disregards international labour standards and fails to compensate migrant workers who have suffered abuses for over a decade.

“With FIFA’s decision on the 2034 World Cup bid looming and required construction of at least 10 new stadiums and infrastructure, it is imperative for FIFA and Saudi Arabia to resolve the outstanding wages of over 20,000 workers for whom we have provided evidence, and to establish mechanisms that prevent any further abuse before even considering the bid. FIFA must stop placing itself above international labour norms and its own human rights statutory obligations.”

Saudi Arabia is unlikely to build 10 new stadiums for the World Cup, as Yuson has claimed, after FIFA relaxed its bidding rules regarding existing stadiums in a move likely to assist the country’s hopes of staging the 2034 tournament. FIFA decreased the number of existing stadiums required from seven to four.

Saudi Arabia already has four large stadiums under construction or being upgraded ahead of the 2027 Asian Cup, which it is hosting.

In January, Populous said the new Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Stadium being developed as part of the Qiddiya project in Saudi Arabia represents a “quantum leap” in stadium design.

The Board of Directors of Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC) earlier revealed the vision for the multi-use venue, with Populous, which is designing the stadium, granting further insight into how it will appear.

Located in Qiddiya City, atop the 200m-high Tuwaiq cliff and 40 minutes from Riyadh, the venue aims to revolutionise the traditional stadium experience with its immersive design and unique technological features.

The 45,000-seat stadium is fully compliant with FIFA requirements for club and international football. It is one of the proposed venues for Saudi Arabia’s 2034 FIFA World Cup bid, while QIC has said the stadium could also be used during Riyadh’s staging of the 2034 Asian Games.

Saudi Arabia will also host football’s Asian Cup in 2027 and Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Stadium has been included as one of the proposed venues for the tournament.