Human rights violations linked to mega sporting events (MSEs) have been the subject of significant and global media coverage in recent years. This reflects increased scrutiny of the management of human rights by host cities and countries during the preparation and staging of global sporting events such as the Beijing Winter Olympic Games earlier this year, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup due to take place in Qatar later this year. Similar scrutiny has been levelled at corporates sponsoring or involved in MSEs.
It is clear that both businesses and governments involved in the preparation and staging of MSEs should be alive to the multifaceted human rights risks that accompany these events.
By their nature, MSEs have the potential to impact the human rights of a large cross-section of society, from athletes, coaches and officials, to organisers and employees of sporting bodies, as well as the local community and individuals supplying the goods and services necessary to prepare and stage an MSE.
Potential human rights impacts should be considered from the outset and integrated into the planning, procurement and delivery of all stages of the lifecycle of an MSE, from vision and concept, sustainable sourcing and construction, delivery and operations, through to the event’s legacy.
This insight highlights issues that may arise for public and private sector entities involved with an MSE at any stage in its lifecycle, including the exploitation of workers and modern slavery in supply chains as well as the adverse social and environmental impacts on local communities.
Labour exploitation and modern slavery in supply chains
The supply chains required to host an MSE are complex, global and intersect with a range of industries and worker populations with elevated modern slavery risks.
Exploitation of labourers in constructing MSE facilities and hosting events
MSEs will often require construction of new or temporary venues, facilities or amenities and new or regenerated infrastructure. Constructing venues and supporting infrastructure, particularly at the scale and within the fixed timeframes demanded by these events, creates the potential for exploitation of vulnerable worker populations commonly employed in the construction industry, including base-skilled workers, migrant workers and foreign nationals on temporary visas.
The construction industry is also heavily reliant on third-party labour contracting models which frequently operate at low cost margins that may expose employees to labour rights violations such as wage theft and unsafe working conditions. In many instances construction workers will live ‘on site’ when building new facilities, particularly in regional areas, and may be provided accommodation and transport as part of their employment. This may result in workers being more vulnerable to exploitative labour practices and, in some cases, to restrictions on freedom of association and freedom of movement.
In the lead up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, groups including Human Rights Watch have alleged that “large numbers of migrant workers died because Qatar lacked a human rights framework that protected workers and allowed them to report dangerous working conditions, wage cheating, and forced labour”. Some media outlets put the number of migrant workers that have died on projects relating to the World Cup since Qatar won the bid 12 years ago at 6,500. Vulnerable workers employed in security and hospitality roles, including catering, cleaning and hotel staff, are exposed to similar risks. These risks are present both in developing and developed countries.
Modern slavery in renewable energy supply chains
As host cities face increasing pressure to ensure events are ‘green’ or ‘carbon neutral’, it is critical that the human rights risks associated with the energy transition are not overlooked. A recent report on Resources, Energy and Modern Slavery identifies several key risks of the ‘green’ energy transition, including reliance on inherently high-risk business models, jurisdictions and products.
Surging global demand for renewable energy places pressure on suppliers of the metals and minerals critical to the energy transition. In particular, the sourcing of polysilicon (a critical component of solar panels), lithium and cobalt (used in the manufacture of lithium batteries for storing wind, solar and hydro power) present elevated risks of modern slavery as these raw materials are predominantly sourced from high-risk jurisdictions including the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China (Xinjiang) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the respective industries are vulnerable to forced and child labour. Increased demand and accelerated timeframes for delivery elevate the already high risks of exploitation for workers in those industries.
Apparel and merchandise modern slavery risks
Apparel and merchandise procured for MSEs also present complex modern slavery risks. Given that the global textiles and garment industry is one of the highest risk industries for forced and child labour, it is challenging to ensure apparel and merchandise are ethically sourced and not tainted by modern slavery in the early tiers of the supply chain.
Both the raw materials used for producing garments and merchandise, such as cotton, and the processing and manufacturing of those products are inherently high risk for modern slavery. It is reported that over 80% of China's cotton export is sourced from Xinjiang and there are now extensive and credible reports of significant use of forced labour in the region. In February 2022 Human Rights Watch published allegations that the International Olympic Committee did not conduct adequate human rights due diligence to ensure that Olympic apparel for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games was not linked to human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Social and environmental impacts on local communities
The significant public and private sector investment in MSEs presents both opportunities and risks for local communities. When human rights considerations are incorporated from the outset in the planning, delivery and legacy of an MSE, the event can have a positive impact on local communities by improving infrastructure and amenities, creating jobs and increasing housing supply and transport links.
However, recent MSEs have demonstrated that the potential social benefits are often not evenly distributed. For example, investment in amenities to benefit the tourist attendees of the MSEs may not address the needs of the local community.
In the case of several recent MSEs, there have been credible reports of forcible displacement of local populations, particularly vulnerable communities such as the homeless or those living in temporary housing or slums. This demonstrates that whilst MSEs can boost housing stock, it may not be suitable for those who have been displaced and may inflate housing and cost-of-living expenses and effectively price out low-income residents, undermining their right to adequate housing.
The environmental impacts of MSEs may also be unevenly distributed and have lasting consequences for host cities, local communities and vulnerable populations. The United Nations Environment Programme has considered that such impacts can arise from:
- the development of fragile, scarce or inappropriate land types for sporting, athlete accommodation, patron and supporting infrastructure;
- an increase in the consumption of energy (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) as well as the consumption and disposal of non-renewable and natural resources during the commissioning, construction, operational and decommissioning phases of MSE facilities;
- the generation and disposal of spectator and event wastes to landfill and the capacity of local waste management systems to service such demands; and
- the increase in noise and air pollution from construction and the movement of people or goods.
Rising to the challenge
In conclusion, those involved in MSEs should, at a minimum, be identifying and assessing the potential adverse environmental and human rights impacts of the event, conducting human rights due diligence and implementing risk management policies and processes informed by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
The UNGPs are a useful starting point for the management of human rights issues linked to MSEs as they can be effectively applied to all stages of the MSE lifecycle and impose obligations on both states (to protect against human rights violations by corporates or any other non-state actors) and corporates (to respect and avoid infringing human rights, while addressing any adverse human rights impacts they are linked to).
As allegations of ‘sportswashing’ and human rights violations linked to MSEs continue to proliferate in the international media, it is likely international sporting governing bodies will impose more stringent requirements for the sustainability credentials of candidate host cities. This will not only set a higher bar of compliance with international human rights obligations, but this onus will likely increasingly flow down to all levels of government and businesses involved in delivering or sponsoring MSEs.
This publication is introductory in nature. Its content is current at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should always obtain legal advice based on your specific circumstances before taking any action relating to matters covered by this publication. Some information may have been obtained from external sources, and we cannot guarantee the accuracy or currency of any such information.