Sport has the potential to be an essential element in the fight against human trafficking, as securing the supply chain and protecting the players in a sport like soccer will potentially reduce the instances of human trafficking and modern slavery
Ini-Obong NkangIni-Obong Nkang is a PhD candidate at Nottingham Law School. He is interested in curbing football trafficking through the usage of football as a tool for the sustainable development of various African communities.
The UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) was introduced to bring together anti-slavery and human trafficking offences into one piece of legislation. Accordingly, it is an offence to: hold a person in slavery or require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour; facilitate the travel of any person across borders with a view to that person being exploited; or commit an offence with the intention to commit human trafficking.
Though the MSA aims to shed light on the human trafficking problem, it is ultimately a lenient piece of regulation as it allows organisations to be compliant with its stipulations without requiring that they take significant steps to prevent or address forced labour in their supply chains. Organisations are merely required to publish a statement in agreement with the MSA to be in accordance with the act.
This leniency has, unfortunately, created a landscape in modern soccer which allows unscrupulous people, who are at times certified Fifa intermediaries, to act as smugglers and traffickers for foreign minors. This can happen when they give false promises to young players and their families to convince them to pay large sums of money for expatriation, only to then leave the minors to their own devices.
This instance can be described as ‘human trafficking through football’. The less identifiable ‘human trafficking in football’ occurs when intermediaries takes advantage of their positions with a minor, and after receiving money to procure a playing contract or trial with a club, provide a contract of an exploitative nature that would be to the disadvantage of the young player.
Champasak had no coach, no medical facilities, no provision for education, only fed the players twice a day and made them sleep on the floor of the stadium
There are many examples of this kind of modern slavery in sport that have occurred in recent times. In 2015, 23 West African minors were trafficked to the Laos side Champasak United, by former Liberian international footballer, Alex Karmo. Champasak had no coach, no medical facilities, no provision for education, only fed the players twice a day and made them sleep on the floor of the stadium.
An estimated 2,120 children have been trafficked to the UK to play soccer but ended up in precarious situations. The BBC reported the story of a Nigerian boy in 2019 who was trafficked for soccer but ended up locked away and subjected to sexual exploitation. Other boys have been brought and ended up being “made to work on building sites until their bones break.”
Supply chain failures
So how is this allowed to happen? A major drawback of the MSA is that it fails to provide a standardised definition of ‘supply chain’. There are several suppliers within soccer, which include the merchandise and construction suppliers, the coaches, and most importantly, the players.
Because of the lack of a definition for the supply chain, clubs and the English Premier League have so far chosen to interpret the MSA provision in their own varied ways, and many clubs neglect to list players as an aspect of their supply chain.
The recruitment and acquisition strategies adopted by clubs to attract talented players - who are in extremely short supply and therefore command a premium price - is a significant risk to the supply chain of the clubs
The recruitment and acquisition strategies adopted by clubs to attract talented players - who are in extremely short supply and therefore command a premium price - is a significant risk to the supply chain of the clubs. This is because, as a result of the increased price tags on the most talented players, many UK and EU clubs source cheaper but equally talented labour by recruiting from the non-European pool of players, as those players have a higher profit margin potential than the homegrown players.
This higher profitability – if the player is subsequently sold or if the team performs well – also exacerbates the risks in the supply chain. It increases the likelihood of further recruitment, and the added ‘purchasing’ of players from lesser non-EU teams and transfer markets, through the exercise of economic superiority. This risk rises significantly when the UK or EU club is inadvertently dealing with an unscrupulous intermediary looking to personally benefit from the sale of the player.
Fifa regulatory responses to this problem have so far been inadequate in preventing further instances of soccer trafficking and modern slavery within the sport. The rules are unclear and, in some instances, diverge from international and wider regulatory standards of care which should be awarded to this particularly targeted group of vulnerable foreign football minors.
Several recommendations can be made to better prevent and protect soccer minors against exploitation within football.
Firstly, clear regulations and strict sanctions are needed. Fifa regulations must be clear and unambiguous in eradicating gaps which traffickers exploit. For example, the highly contested blanket ban on the international transfer of minors under the age of 18 and the four specific exceptions - parents moving, EU, proximity to national border and first registration - have resulted in numerous disputes at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The parent exception was argued by Cadiz FC, as the club claimed that the mother of a Paraguayan minor gained employment and moved to Spain on her own, and that her decision was unrelated to her son being contracted to play for the Spanish club a week after her relocation. FC Midtjylland, the Danish side, attempted to use the EU exception to claim that young African players were ‘workers’ within the EU, despite their student status.
These disputes either indicate a lack of clarity in Fifa rules, or they show the intention of clubs to capitalise on regulatory loopholes to exploit and traffic foreign minors.
It has been suggested that Fifa should instead focus on more robust sanctions for rogue intermediaries who act as human traffickers within soccer
Secondly, the repeated breaches of Fifa’s rules, despite previous sanctions, have led to calls for Fifa to abandon the current method of sanctioning European clubs, since this has so far proved to be ineffective as a deterrent. It has been suggested that Fifa should instead focus on more robust sanctions for rogue intermediaries who act as human traffickers within soccer. Though this is conceivable, a combination of stricter sanctions on dishonest intermediaries, and the adoption of severe but equitable sanctions for the perpetrating clubs, could significantly deter both the individuals and the clubs from further irregular transfers involving foreign minors.
Thirdly, the planning, implementation and evaluation of Fifa regulations involving the recruitment of minors should be guided by internationally-recognised frameworks and standards which consider the protection of children - irrespective of EU or non-EU status - as primary, over pursuing commercial interests.
Sport has the potential to be an essential element in the fight against human trafficking, as securing the supply chain and protecting the players in a sport like soccer will potentially reduce the instances of human trafficking and modern slavery of foreign teenage boys.
The effects of such safeguards will also have wider developmental impact for other industries which could learn from soccer in limiting this problem.