Saudi Arabia, the frontrunner to host the 2034 World Cup, is facing serious allegations of extensive forced labour among its large migrant workforce. These allegations have been detailed in a complaint filed with the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).

The complaint claims that migrant workers in Saudi Arabia experience numerous labour rights violations, including non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports, illegal recruitment fees, debt bondage, and restrictions on changing jobs.

According to the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), the trade union that lodged the complaint, these issues represent “an epidemic of abuses.” The BWI argues that these abuses constitute forced labour, a contemporary form of slavery, violating Saudi Arabia’s commitments under the UN’s forced labour conventions.

Ambet Yuson, the BWI’s general secretary, stated, “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.”

The BWI, which claims to represent approximately 12 million workers, is urging the ILO to investigate these allegations. This call for action is supported by organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and FairSquare, which focuses on human rights abuses related to labour migration and sport.

The complaint surfaces just months before Fifa is expected to announce Saudi Arabia as the host of the 2034 World Cup, with the Gulf nation being the sole bidder.

This situation is poised to put significant pressure on Fifa, which is already being urged to disqualify Saudi Arabia as the tournament host unless it adheres to its human rights obligations.

Fifa’s bidding regulations for the 2030 and 2034 World Cup mandate that host countries must commit to “respecting internationally recognized human rights.”

Minky Worden, HRW’s director of global initiatives, remarked, “The complaint essentially states that Saudi Arabia lacks meaningful protections against forced labour. This filing is historic and may be the only substantial obstacle to Fifa awarding the 2034 World Cup to Saudi Arabia. Fifa must clarify how it will assess and mitigate risks to migrant labour rights as required by its human rights policy.”

Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, suggested that Fifa could drive essential labour reforms by requiring binding human rights commitments before finalizing the 2034 tournament decision. “Failing to do so would almost ensure forced labour is central to its flagship tournament,” he added.

A similar complaint was filed against Qatar in 2014 by the International Trade Union Confederation, leading to a partnership between the ILO and Qatar to reform labour laws ahead of the 2022 World Cup. Despite significant reforms like the dismantling of the kafala (sponsorship) system and the introduction of a minimum wage, labour rights experts have questioned the efficacy of these changes.

Saudi Arabia, which relies heavily on migrant workers from South Asia and Africa, has over 13 million foreign workers. These numbers are expected to increase dramatically if the country hosts the World Cup, necessitating substantial construction projects, including transport networks, hotels, training grounds, and stadiums.

Although Saudi Arabia has introduced some labour reforms in recent years, the BWI’s findings indicate that abuse of migrant workers remains prevalent.

Their complaint includes a survey of 193 migrant workers with experience in Saudi Arabia. The survey revealed that 65% had their personal documents, such as passports, confiscated by employers, and 63% were unable to leave their employment with reasonable notice or after their contracts expired.

Fifa and Saudi authorities have been approached for comments.