Home Insights Essential ESG: Episode 7 – The human rights impacts of mega sporting events

Essential ESG: Episode 7 – The human rights impacts of mega sporting events

In the latest episode of Corrs’ Essential ESG podcast, Phoebe Wynn-Pope and Eloise O’Brien discuss the human rights impacts of mega sporting events.

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar underway, Phoebe and Eloise discuss the increasing pressure on host nations, sporting associations and businesses to manage the multifaceted and complex human rights impacts associated with mega sporting events.

Essential ESG is a podcast series presented by Corrs that breaks down topical issues affecting the rapidly evolving environmental, social and governance landscape in Australia and beyond.

Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Head of Responsible Business and ESG

Eloise O’Brien, Associate, Responsible Business and ESG

Phoebe: Welcome to Corrs’ Essential ESG podcast, coming to you from the lands of the Wurundjeri people. In this series we provide bite-sized deep dives into topical issues in the evolving ESG landscape in Australia and beyond. I’m Phoebe Wynn Pope, Head of Responsible Business and ESG at Corrs and my co-host today is my colleague Eloise O’Brien, Associate in our Responsible Business and ESG group. Welcome Eloise.

Eloise: Thanks Phoebe. It’s great to be back.

Phoebe: We thought it was an important time to talk about the human rights risks of mega sporting events because, as soccer fans will know, the 2022 FIFA World Cup is upon us. We recognise that sporting events are a marvellous bringer-together of people and of nations and of excitement and of joy for an enormous number of people. But there are also a whole lot of issues that arise in these contexts and I think that the decision by FIFA, the international soccer governing body, to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup has attracted quite a lot of controversy over the past 12 years since they won the bid.

Eloise: That’s right, Phoebe. And, yes, there’s been a lot said in the last few weeks and as you say the last 12 years about the human rights impacts of hosting the event in Qatar, particularly in relation to Qatar’s human rights record when it comes to migrant workers. I think The Guardian has estimated about 6,500 migrant workers have died constructing the facilities for the event and there’s also been a lot of criticism, including from our own national team, the Socceroos, about Qatar’s policies and laws persecuting the LGBTIQ+ community. The video that the Socceroos published back in October was very critical of these issues and so have other teams in Denmark, in particular where their national kit has been designed to honour the workers who died in the construction of the facilities. And France has taken a different route of protesting the human rights issues relating to the event, with many cities, including Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux and others not having fan zones and not screening the games and the event publicly.

Phoebe: While the FIFA World Cup is making the issue of human rights and sporting events topical at the moment, of course this World Cup isn’t the first mega sporting event to have been tainted by serious human rights violations. The Sochi and the Beijing world Olympics, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia were also widely scrutinised for human rights impacts occurring in the lead up to, during and after those events. And scrutiny has also been levelled at the corporate sponsoring involved in those events. Before we go any further Eloise, perhaps we should just highlight some of the key human rights risk associated with staging these types of mega events.

Eloise: Of course and sporting events we should, as we did, recognise at the start are amazing events that bring people together and have the potential to advance and promote human rights, particularly in contexts where those conversations are not very well advanced. But sporting events can also negatively impact human rights and perpetuate or even mask issues like discrimination and corruption.

Phoebe: Yes. And while it is states and international sporting bodies that are most obviously linked to those events, the intersection of human rights and sports is increasing relevant to the corporate sponsors and businesses that are involved in producing the events. That’s in large part because to remain profitable in the long term corporations need to preserve their social licence to operate and given consumers have an increasing preference for ethical and sustainable products, businesses need to carefully consider whether their sponsorship activities and business relationships will associate their brand with events that may be tainted by some of these controversies.

Eloise: Yes, and for that reason it’s really important for all organisations involved in mega sporting events to understand that these events have the potential to impact a really broad range, and a really broad cross-section, of society from organisers and employees, athletes and support staff, local communities and of course, as we mentioned in relation to Qatar, the individuals involved in the supply chains for these events. And the rights of these diverse groups are often impacted in very different ways. So perhaps let’s start with those workers in the supply chains and I guess it won’t surprise anyone to know that supply chains required to host mega sporting events are complex, global and constrained by tight and immoveable delivery timeframes. And they also involve a number of sectors and industries that rely pretty heavily on vulnerable worker populations.

Phoebe: Yes, one such sector is of course construction. So over 18% of modern slavery globally is found in the property and construction industries and construction is necessarily integral to a lot of sporting events. There’s few host cities and nations that will have pre-existing facilities that will be appropriate for the event that they’ve bid for. And those bids are a popular way for governments also to justify injecting massive amounts of capital into local infrastructure and the local economy by building these state of the art showcase stadiums and associated facilities like accommodation and transport links and those sorts of things. And the risks of labour exploitation and modern slavery that exist in the construction industry are exacerbated, very often by that compressed lifecycle you were talking about. The timeframe is set, there is no running overtime with these projects so it creates a lot of demand and a lot of pressure on workers and leading up to the World Cup it’s been estimated that around six and a half thousand migrant workers contributing to the construction of the stadiums and the infrastructure in Qatar have died while constructing those, you know, what are going to be air-conditioned stadiums in that part of the world which is very, very hot. So Human Rights Watch and other organisations have criticised the Qatari Government for failing to adequately regulate the working conditions to support those workers or provide any sort of human rights framework which would enable them to report either dangerous working conditions, wage theft or forced labour.

Eloise: Yes Phoebe, and you mentioned the air-conditioned stadiums and I guess that gives rise to another human rights concern with is relating to enormous carbon emissions that flow from these events and as governments grapple with the impeding climate crisis, there’s this increased pressure for host nations to make demonstrable efforts to cut those emissions and some games and other events have committed to being carbon neutral or having a carbon neutral legacy. The FIFA World Cup Qatar organisation and Qatar’s supreme committee for delivery and legacy have committed to reducing and offsetting all carbon emissions relating to the World Cup and they really will need to because FIFA itself has already estimated that the Qatar World Cup will produce 3.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide which is more than some countries’ annual emissions.

Phoebe: So on the one side we need to be aware of the enormous human rights impacts of climate change and the significant carbon footprints of these events and on the other side, while we’re recognising the difficulties of offsets while we’re sort of thinking how hard that is as we’re all working towards a carbon zero future, hosts need to proceed with caution when switching to renewable energy and not assume that green by itself is good when it comes to those energy sources.

Eloise: That’s right. And as we discussed in an earlier episode on the just transition to net zero, there are really significant human rights risks associated with renewable energy. And these risks relate to both the construction of renewable energy sources – renewable energy infrastructure, and also the sourcing of components for that infrastructure. So for example the components in electric batteries used for storing renewable power and for powering electric vehicles and components in the manufacturing of solar cells and solar panels which carry inherently high risks of modern slavery. And those relate to the fact that those minerals like polysilicon and cobalt are sourced predominantly from high risk jurisdictions like the Xinjiang region in China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Phoebe: Yes and it’s also well-known that the textiles and garment industry also carries those elevated risks of forced labour and other forms of modern slavery which will be relevant to the procurement of clothing associated with mega sporting events so at the Beijing winter Olympics earlier this year Human Rights Watch reported that the IOC didn’t conduct adequate human rights due diligence to ensure the official clothing for the winter games wasn’t made by forced labour in Xinjiang. So these continue to be issues to consider along the way.

Eloise: That’s right. And those issues and risks are compounded where either the organisers or the contractors rely on third party labour providers to gap-fill labour shortages. And that’s because organisations delivering these enormous events will frequently work with licensees and contractors and therefore have more limited oversight over the working conditions of the people supplying goods and services necessary to the construction of facilities, as you mentioned, and also making the clothing and serving the food at those events. So at-risk industries include the ones we’ve already discussed: construction, infrastructure. But also things like cleaning, catering, security and hospitality which are all very central to hosting a major sporting event.

Phoebe: There are a lot of things to be thinking about on the way through and a few other important issues associated with events that we should mention so often only considered after an event are the impacts on the local community. So we’ve seen in recent cases situations where local communities have been forcibly displaced for the construction of either stadiums or temporary accommodation or temporary facilities and sometimes accommodation for attendees or participants and sometimes populations have been displaced or people have been moved on to hide vulnerable populations from tourists and the international community that are coming in a little bit more nefarious in some ways. These events can also do a lot of good in terms of boosting overall housing accommodation and stock, new developments can really help with housing issues but often they’re designed for the athletes rather than for the local population and so a positive opportunity is sometimes lost as the planning doesn’t really think about the long term and is very focused on just the delivery of the event. So I know that in Birmingham the Commonwealth Games were criticised as residential development by private developers undermined some of the local commitments that local councils had made for a 35% affordable housing policy. So these things are so interconnected with a whole range of different opportunities on the one side and then missed opportunities which result sometimes in adverse human rights impacts on the other.

Eloise: Yes, and as you’ve hinted at Phoebe the impacts, the social and environmental impacts can disproportionately be borne by vulnerable populations and lower socioeconomic groups and that’s particularly true when it comes to the local environmental impact. So we’ve spoken about the impacts of climate change a bit but in terms of the impact on the local environment, development is sometimes undertaken on fragile or inappropriate land, there might be huge waste issues in terms of generation of waste going to landfill or polluting the local water sources, increased noise and air pollution – all those sorts of things can have a really serious impact on the local community and also their right to a healthy environment which the UN General Assembly recognised earlier this year.

Phoebe: That’s right. So the question is – I feel like we’ve gone through a whole range of terrible outcomes from mega sporting events but I think the question is really how to take steps to address and mitigate some of these things, right, so none of them are insurmountable. It’s all things just to be taking into consideration if you’re planning and planning to participate in some of these events. And one thing to think about and to incorporate obviously is the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They’re a very useful starting point. They can be effectively applied to all stages of the MSE lifestyle from preparation to staging to legacy issues. So the UN Guiding Principles provide instructive guidance about the obligations both on states and on businesses to address human rights issues and, at a minimum, organisations putting these events forward and involved in their delivery should be embedding the consideration of human rights impacts throughout the whole lifestyle of the event.

Eloise: That’s right. And as you say, we don’t want sporting events to stop. We love to enjoy the sporting events. We don’t want to be watching them with guilt. And it’s important for those organisations to take those steps that you mentioned – organisations involved in the preparation, delivery, staging and even pitching for these events to be thinking about this from the outset which means identifying and assessing potential adverse human rights impacts but also the potential to have positive human rights impacts. And then conducting appropriate human rights due diligence to ensure the suppliers you’re using aren’t involved in human rights violations, aren’t imposing unsafe working conditions or engaging in modern slavery practices and also implementing risk management policies and processes so that you are proactively managing the human rights impacts and taking steps to mitigate them.

So Phoebe, what should our listeners be taking away from today’s conversation?

Phoebe: I think there are three main things, Eloise. There’s the increasing pressure on host nations and businesses to manage human rights impacts associated with mega sport events. Like this is just the key takeaway I guess and it’s likely that what we will see is that those peak sporting bodies will be imposing more and more stringent obligations around these things on host nations and host nations will feed that down to their supply chain in terms of the businesses that are delivering these events. So this needs to be thought about all the way through the whole lifecycle. The second is that the human rights risks associated with these events are multifaceted and complex. So we need to be thinking about them right from the very beginning. You need to have people dedicated to really ensuring and embedding that human rights protections are – and mitigations are built in the process – all the way through. And the third thing is that organisations involved in these events should be engaging with these issues from the outset. They are not insurmountable, as I said earlier. They can be mitigated and managed so long as you’ve identified them on the way through.

Eloise: So we’ve given a lot of food for thought today Phoebe and if our listeners want to dive deeper into this topic, we have written an Insight on this topic, available on our Corrs website which is on mega sporting events and integrating a human rights approach into planning, procurement and delivery. And you can also listen to episode two of this podcast which discusses the just transition. And episode three which speaks about Australia’s Modern Slavery Act.

Phoebe: Thanks Eloise and thanks to our listeners for listening to another instalment of our Essential ESG podcast. If you’ve enjoyed it, don’t forget to subscribe to get notifications about future episodes.

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This podcast is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal or other advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should always obtain legal advice about your specific circumstances.


Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope

Head of Responsible Business and ESG

Eloise O'Brien

Senior Associate


Responsible Business and ESG