Learning from Qatar: the future for football and human rights

Sancroft Team
By Sancroft Team

By Matt Thorogood, former Senior Analyst at Sancroft.

There has never been a time when the relationship between football and human rights was more in the spotlight. What was once a minor topic of interest for some is now daily front-page news, with the FIFA World Cup in Qatar making headlines every day, from migrant workers constructing stadiums trapped in bonded or forced labour and exposed to hazardous working conditions, to the safety of LGBTQ fans and players. With this increasing scrutiny on human rights, we have brought together some actions clubs and governing bodies should take to reduce their human rights risks and help create positive change on social issues.

What a football club can do:

  1. Understand their salient human rights issues

Clubs are likely to come into contact with salient human rights risks, both within their own operations as well as their supply chains – such as ensuring that workers are paid a living wage and enjoy good working conditions; or that suppliers, including kit and merchandise manufacturers, have similar provisions to protect people affected by their operations.

‘Salient’ human rights are those that are at risk of the most severe negative impact on people through the activities of a business and their business relationships. The focus is on where there is greatest actual or potential risk to people, rather than the greatest risk to the business. Saliency is a concept central to the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, as set out in the global authoritative standard, the United Nation Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

Understanding your salient issues as a club can help to direct their resources to where they will have the most impact on people. It is important for football clubs to note that it is not only human rights violations that they directly cause they are considered responsible for, but also those that they contribute to, or are connected to through their business relationships in their supply chain.

Although FIFA discloses its own salient human rights risks, saliency is a prioritisation of the risks you uniquely face so are different for every organisation; there is therefore an opportunity at club level to establish a leadership position for the first clubs that fully understand their human rights risks and communicate this effectively.

  1. Create a human rights policy

For a more comprehensive approach, a football club could look to incorporate policies on modern slavery with their other salient human rights within a human rights policy. This sets out the controls they have in place to protect human rights, showing how they have prioritised and provide assurance for stakeholders that respect for human rights is an important value of the club. It should include a whistleblowing mechanism to enable clubs to deal with violations appropriately, ensuring that incidents are dealt with as efficiently as possible and remedy for any victims is provided.

It is likely that clubs can magnify the positive impact they have already worked to achieve in such areas as diversity and inclusion – both relevant areas for a human rights policy to address.

  1. Supply chain management

One clear area of risk for football clubs is their supply chains. As the percentage share of matchday revenue reduces, merchandising rights become ever more important. Some apparel supply chains encompass high risk areas, and it is therefore important that football clubs engage their suppliers to ensure they are acting to mitigate human rights risks wherever possible. There are multiple examples of human rights violations across the sports sector including examples of child labour and other labour rights abuses in supply chains of the Beijing and London Olympic games and the South Africa FIFA World Cup. Civil pressure and boycotting of sports clothing due to human rights violations has previously led to action including adidas withdrawing from a partnership with the Israeli Football Association.

With football clubs sharing merchandise supply chains, the combined leverage of clubs to ensure suppliers are behaving responsibly is significant, and leadership on this issue can ensure that positive change is felt across the sport.

  1. Work with other clubs on social issues

A key takeout of the recent Sport Positive Summit was that collaboration was absolutely key for sports organisations in meeting the sustainability challenge effectively. Although sports organisations are by their nature competitive, human rights (and the climate) offer a challenge that is both complex and beyond the expertise of most sports organisations. It is key for clubs to work together, learning from each other’s successes and mistakes, to get up to speed quickly in meeting these challenges.

To achieve this, clubs should look to build working groups to discuss and collaborate on key sustainability issues. Historically, the non-competitive parts of football clubs have worked well together on challenges such as pitch maintenance, with groundsmen communicating with each other on a regular basis. Our client, a Premier League football club, noted the reduction in the effectiveness of these informal collaboration channels post-Covid, so it is crucial that those with the budget and capacity take the lead to facilitate positive action in a more formal arrangement.

What a governing body can do:

  1. Take a stand to ensure protection of human rights is included in the ‘fit-and-proper’ test

As previously written about here, governance is key for football clubs. The ‘fit-and-proper’ test for those with controlling interests in football clubs has historically not included due diligence related to sustainability concerns. There is still a need for a more holistic approach during this test which ensures that those responsible for historic human rights violations should not be able to enjoy the benefits that owning a club of the beautiful game holds. ‘Sportswashing’ a reputation built on violations of the fundamental rights of others must not be an option.

Concluding remarks

Businesses, and by extension sports organisations, have long had a fear of lifting their heads above the parapet and engaging with human rights, worried that they may uncover something damaging. However, inaction is no longer an excuse, and moreover effective human rights management can mitigate the risk of future litigation and establish an organisation as a leader in the space, improving their reputation and creating support in a way similar to Forest Green Rovers have done through their environmental project.

We are experts in sustainability with significant expertise in mitigating human rights risks for large corporates. If you would like to know how we could help you to meet your responsibilities with a human right approach, please contact hello@sancroft.com.