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Why Qatar’s World Cup may spur big changes

While many countries get few, if any, benefits from hosting a mega-sports event, Qatar's controversial selection as the location for the 2022 World Cup may spur major social change.

"There's a lot of talk about legacy with mega-events. Most of those legacies are negative," James Dorsey, senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told CNBC. "Qatar is potentially one of those exceptions where you could actually see social and potentially political change."

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Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup has met a storm of criticism. In addition to an investigation into allegations of corruption surrounding the award, which may result in Qatar losing the opportunity, the country also faced international criticism over its labor rights record for its treatment of migrant laborers.

Construction workers in Doha, Qatar
Warren Little | Getty Images
Construction workers in Doha, Qatar

It would mark a shift from the latest World Cup, as Brazil faces continued grumblings over its decision to spend over $13 billion to build game infrastructure, much of which is unlikely to be reused, when the country faces pressing needs, including widespread poverty.

"The Qataris in principle have said that they are willing to reform their system and that would include a substantial improvement for workers, both in terms of the recruitment system which is onerous and corrupt, as well as in terms of living and working conditions," Dorsey said. "What the international community really wants is an abolition of the kafala system."

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Under the system, workers must surrender their passports to employers, who have control of their movement within the country and whether they can change jobs or leave the country. Qatar's Ministry of Economy and Commerce didn't immediately return an emailed request for comment.

"In a society where the citizenry is 12 percent of the population, foreigners are 88 percent, everything changes" when labor laws are changed, Dorsey said.

Others also are hoping that the World Cup will spur change in the country.

"If FIFA demand Qatar abolish kafala and respect fundamental international rights, it will happen," Sharan Burrow, general secretary at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said in a report in March.

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As many as 1,200 migrant workers may have died in Qatar since it was awarded the cup and another 4,000 are likely to die before the event starts, the report said. It cited squalid, crowded living conditions. Many workers live without running water or sanitation facilities and perform heavy work during the summer heat.

Amnesty International also issued a report in April on the treatment of migrant domestic workers, including reports of physical and sexual abuse as well as long working hours without rest days.

Other complaints include "bait-and-switch" contracts which cut pay after workers arrive in the country and surrender their passports as well as failure to pay salaries at all.

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In February, the organizers of the country's World Cup issued detailed standards for contractors, including penalties, which can include the cancellation of contracts, but activists claim the standards still aren't being enforced. The Qatari Ministry of Economy and Commerce didn't immediately return an emailed request for comment.

"Where the Qataris are going to have real problems and we'll have to see how real the pressure is on what essentially are democratic rights: the right to free association, the right to organize as a trade union, the right to collective bargaining," Dorsey said. "Those are issues which obviously if you touch, change the political system."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

Contact World Economy

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