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Reforms in sight for Mexico: change the world of labor, change sports

Organizing the 2026 FIFA World Cub could worsen the challenges facing the country, but it is also an opportunity for it to promote workers’ rights

Workers in Doha, Qatar on a construction site for a stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Workers in Doha, Qatar on a construction site for a stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
Fadrique Iglesias

The recent images of a festive Tokyo after the closing of the Olympic Games overshadow those that usually come from the preparation of sporting megaevents: abuses of human and labor rights, an issue that the co-organizers of the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) United 2026 World Cup – the United States, Canada and Mexico – hope to prevent.

In 2014, the international press uncovered shocking stories of human rights violations perpetrated by construction companies in Qatar, responsible for building the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, demonstrating the coexistence of luxurious development projects with the worst humanitarian conditions, labor exploitation and human trafficking. Reports published by organizations such as the Centre for Sports and Human Rights and the Institute for Human Rights and Business were the first to raise awareness about the issue. However, Amnesty International’s reports identifying grave abuses faced by workers, primarily migrants employed in sports infrastructure construction, resonated most with the media. These reports unveiled employment systems based on arbitrary quotas between foreign workers and employers, restrictions on physical movement and freedom of association, delayed and unpaid wages and fraudulent legal protection systems for workers, among other criminal practices.

There is hope for a 2026 World Cup that seeks to create economic growth and heal historical, social and commercial differences, without mistreating the labor force in the host cities

In 2017, the New York Times, citing Human Rights Watch, reported 17 cases of worker casualties during the process of infrastructure construction and preparation for the 2018 Russian World Cup, adding to dozens of other recorded deaths since the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In Latin America, before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, human rights violations were also recorded. However, public attention was focused on inequality in the country, the sustainability of such luxurious infrastructure and public security issues.

This will be the third time the Men’s World Cup will be held in Mexico (after 1970 and 1986), the second time it will be held in the US (after 1994) and the first time in Canada. Yet this time the tournament will have double the number of participants from the previous years: from 24 countries in 1994 to 48, with 80 games to be hosted in 16 cities. Each of these cities could see a local economic boost of between $90 million and $480 million (€76 million; €407 million). In total, the event will generate approximately $5 billion (€4.25 billion) in the short term and 40,000 job opportunities, according to the American soccer federation, US Soccer.

To mitigate risks and labor rights violations, the organizing teams of Mexico, the US and Canada have launched an ambitious strategy. The United 2026 Human Rights Strategy was prepared for FIFA in 2018 and approved after two years of consultation. The strategy employs a comprehensive focus to incorporate civil society actors in the diffusion, planning, monitoring and implementation of measures to prevent and mitigate these risks in the renovation of sports facilities and the value-added chain associated with the World Cup.

Its applicability to Mexico, the country with one of the highest incidences of violations of labor rights in the Americas, has become an important issue in the public agenda. The current labor regulation system is characterized by delays in the processing of cases, underutilized inspections schemes with insufficient funds and arbitrary decision-making by labor authorities. Even with the Labor Reform in progress, in 2020 the International Trade Union Confederation categorized Mexico as a country with “systematic violations of rights,” in their “Worst Countries for Workers” report. FIFA’s commitment can capitalize on the changes to labor legislation enacted in 2019, which contain structural reforms to the Mexican labor system, approved in the context of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), coincidentally between the three organizing countries of the 2026 World Cup. Mexico’s new Labor Law seeks to strengthen the national labor system with new institutions for union reconciliation and registration and to relieve the traditional judicial system by transferring cases to labor tribunals.

Organizing one of the biggest sporting events in the world may compound the challenges Mexico faces, but it also presents an opportunity to promote compliance with labor rights. It will further serve to send a message from Mexico about its commitment to democratization and free union affiliation, collective bargaining and compliance with international standards, many of which are recognized by the International Labor Organization.

Organizing one of the biggest sporting events in the world will serve to send a message from Mexico about its commitment to democratization and compliance with international standards

Although it may seem too early to think about the effects of the 2026 World Cup – given the 2022 event is yet to take place – there are two factors in the next three years that will be key to making the 2026 competition successful. The first is timing: it is still possible to act preventatively. What happens in 2026 could cause irreparable damage to legal systems and reputations that are difficult to reverse in social and commercial terms. The second is that the aforementioned labor reform, carried out progressively through 2025, will be implemented simultaneously with World Cup preparations. Progress is being made in the first stage of the reform in some Mexican cities, but not yet in the states that are home to three host cities: Jalisco (Guadalajara), Nuevo León (Monterrey) and State of Mexico (Mexico City). The US government has mobilized funds for technical cooperation to institutionalize the reform and prevent possible labor violations, but above all to facilitate the use of legal tools by workers, unions and the general public. Among these efforts is the Mexico United 2026 project, sponsored by the US State Department and implemented by the nonprofit organization Partners of the Americas (POA), whose experience includes six decades of work in 30 countries in the region, in issues of child protection, sports-for-development, educational exchanges and economic empowerment.

The project Mexico United 2026 seeks to increase worker knowledge of labor legislation relevant to the 2026 World Cup and improve coordination between labor rights organizations, the private sector and unions, while raising awareness among the general public about the commitments of Mexico. In addition, the project works to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations to document and denounce labor abuses through available mechanisms, knowledge and coordination networks, and thus guarantee the availability of transparent and accurate information. The organizations involved in the project are the Centro de Reflexión y Acción Laboral (Center for Reflection and Labor Action), the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Center for Migrant Rights) and the Red de Mujeres Sindicalistas (Network of Unionised Women).

The efforts of Partners of the Americas complement other projects financed by the US Labor Department to increase understanding of labor reform and thus reduce labor violations through 2025. These efforts are expected to positively impact work climate, business productivity and freedom of association, and reverse old practices such as the fraudulent purchase of contracts, as found by the Latin American Social Sciences Institute’s (FLACSO) labor investigator Kimberly Nolan, in an article for the New York Times.

Faced with the current economic and health crisis, and in the context of improving commercial relations under the new USMCA, there is hope for a World Cup that seeks to create economic growth and heal historical, social and commercial differences, without mistreating the labor force in the cities that will receive the entire world’s attention for a month. It is time to achieve new respect for human rights and experience the celebration of sport, united, as is the slogan of United 2026.

Fadrique Iglesias is the director of the Child Protection Unit at the NGO Partners of the Americas. He represented Bolivia in the Olympic Games in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008.

Translated by Allison McGovern.

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