Death Of Brazilian Stadium Workers Raises More Labor Concerns Ahead Of World Cup


A Brazilian worker plays with a soccer ball inside Manaus' Arena da Amazônia.

Two workers died Saturday at the Arena da Amazônia, a World Cup stadium in the city of Manaus, drawing the attention of Brazilian labor groups and prompting the Brazilian labor court to halt some work at the stadium pending a review. 22-year-old Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira fell to his death while working on the stadium, while a 49-year-old worker collapsed and died of a heart attack while working on the convention adjacent to the venue.

That has drawn understandable concern in much of the media — and even in Brazil — over whether the Arena da Amazônia will reach completion by its end-of-the-year deadline. Six of Brazil’s 12 World Cup stadiums remain incomplete; some of them are already assured to miss the deadline and won’t be completed until at least February.

But while the focus is, as it was with security concerns, about what this will mean for the World Cup, attention should also be paid to what it means for Brazilians before, during, and after the tournament is gone. It is, after all, the second high-profile incident leading to worker deaths in the last month at a World Cup venue, after three workers died when a crane collapsed onto the Arena Corinthians, the Sao Paulo venue scheduled to host the first match of the World Cup. That has caught the renewed attention of Brazilian labor groups, which called over the weekend for a one-day strike at the Manaus stadium Monday.

“A general strike would be ideal, to show the reality that nobody wants to see,” Amazonas Construction Union president Cicero Custodio told Globosporte, according to Yahoo News. “The government only shows the pretty part of the works and forgets who’s there making them happen. This Monday we will be there, demanding our rights as workers and exposing this reality.”

Whether such a strike took place is unclear. News reports indicated that workers had walked off the job, though the contractor overseeing stadium construction said all work had continued as normal. The labor court allowed some construction to resume Monday but did not permit any work involving heights.

Brazilian workers had previously held a one-day strike in July to protest labor conditions at the World Cup sites, and this time, some in the government seem to be taking the issue seriously. Amazonas governor Omar Aziz told reporters this week that meeting the deadlines wasn’t worth sacrificing safety and labor rights. “Just because we have a timetable, we can’t risk the life of anyone. The state has to be alert. The company needs to provide full safety,” Aziz said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That is, as Aziz noted, of far bigger concern than whether the stadiums are completed by the end-of-year deadline. But that race to meet deadlines has caused other problems too. When Brazil bid on the Cup, it promised to make infrastructure investments that would help the country after the tournament was gone. It planned to bolster public transportation, roads, and conditions in poorer and middle class neighborhoods. But because it fell behind on stadium construction, many of those projects have been delayed or canceled. That isn’t shocking: it’s a regular occurrence at mega-events like these. As sports economist Victor Matheson told me in July, as the events get closer, more money tends to flow toward sports infrastructure projects — that is, stadiums — than toward the developmental infrastructure that was originally promised.

So not only does the race to complete lavish stadiums on schedule create more dangerous conditions for workers — it often leads to the diversion of money away from projects that will benefit them once they’re off the job too. Finishing the stadiums in a reasonable time is certainly important. But if it comes at the expense of worker safety, labor rights, and projects that will spur development for all Brazilians, it will again raise questions about whether the cost of the World Cup will ultimately outweigh its benefits.