Absent sweeping labor and regulatory reforms, more than 4,000 workers could die in Qatar in the eight remaining years before the small Persian gulf country hosts the 2022 World Cup, a report released in March by an international labor group asserts. The findings are based off the death tolls for migrant workers in recent years — more than 500 Indian workers have died in the country since 2012 — and are blamed on the country’s oppressive migrant worker system that leaves workers “enslaved” and in conditions of squalor both in its preparations for the World Cup, for which it plans to spend more than $200 billion on construction projects, the report from the International Trade Union Confederation found:
The ITUC estimates at least 4,000 more workers will die before the start of the World Cup in 2022. The estimatation of deaths in Qatar is conservative and based on the tragic statistics collected by two embassies only — Nepal and India — which account for around 5% of the total migrant workforce.
The figure of 4,000 possible deaths is based on mortality trend data from the Indian and Nepalese embassies over the three most recent years, taking into account some 500,000 extra workers (cited by official sources in Qatar) in the years leading up to the World Cup.
Whether the cause of death is labelled a work accident, heart attack (brought on by the life threatening effects of heat stress) or diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same — working conditions.
Qatar remains an attractive prospective workplace for poor migrant because of the rash of construction projects it has planned ahead of the World Cup — it plans to spend billions on new airports, railways, roads, and other infrastructure projects — but the conditions workers face upon arrival are akin to enslavement, ITUC’s report states. Qatar’s kafala system gives migrant workers, which make up nearly 90 percent of its population, virtually no rights. Under kafala, migrant workers must have a domestic sponsor to enter the country, and that sponsor then controls their pay, living conditions, their freedom to change jobs, and even their ability to leave the country.
The perils of the kafala system were highlighted earlier this year when French footballer Zahir Belounis, who was playing club soccer for the Qatari club Al-Jaish, tried to leave the country amid a pay dispute with the club. Al-Jaish refused to grant Belounis permission to exit Qatar, and he was only able to leave thanks to international intervention. Most other Qatari workers, however, never get that chance — the report details the litany of abuses that face migrant workers, from fraudulent contracts to inhumane working conditions to confiscated passports and unreceived pay. Qatar also gives workers virtually no rights to file grievances against their employers and has a legal system that workers say discriminates against them when they seek pay they are owed. Workers have few bargaining rights with their employers, and collective bargaining doesn’t exist at all.
Qatar’s heat has also caused problems around its World Cup, as officials at FIFA and in Qatar fear that its oppressive summer conditions will make the tournament dangerous for players and fans. But that heat is a regular part of life for Qatar’s migrant labor force — and a major contributor to its labor dangers, the report says. ITUC says that 20 Indian migrant workers died per month on average in 2013, with the number peaking in August, the hottest month of the year. The heat only exacerbates labor conditions that are already inhumane, as the country lacks even basic safety, health, or living standards for its workers, according to the ITUC report.
To put the number of fatalities in context, the deadliest major sporting event in recent history was the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, where 60 workers died in Olympics-related projects, according to ITUC, and that event was considered a major problem for workers given the deaths, lack of workers’ rights, and payment disputes for the domestic and migrant workers who worked on Olympic projects. And yet, at current rates, Qatar’s construction projects will kill that many workers between now and the completion of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where seven workers have died since preparations began.
ITUC makes a series of recommendations for reforming the migrant work system that calls for an end to the kafala system, a minimum living wage, collective bargaining rights, and oversight and grievance procedures that give workers the ability to challenge their employers without fear of retribution. It also calls on FIFA, the international soccer organization whose former officials are already facing accusations of corruption in awarding the Cup to Qatar, to pressure the country into action before the World Cup begins.
FIFA’s involvement is necessary both because the organization should have a responsibility to live up to its espoused ideals of basic human rights in its host countries, but also because the organization is in the position to force change where it hasn’t existed before. Qatar adopted two separate rights charters that the government says will protect workers, but ITUC says both are “hollow” attempts to fool the world into believing the country is taking the problem seriously. If ITUC’s numbers are to be believed, it is right: the rate of worker fatalities has only increased in the year since the charters were adopted.
But while FIFA will meet with leaders from the ITUC today, according to a report in The Telegraph, the organization has shown little willingness to act in situations like this. Massive crowds have protested issues around the World Cup there, where labor abuses are on the list of complaints Brazilians have leveled against FIFA and the government’s handling of tournament preparations. But even as the complaints in Brazil pale, in many ways, compared to Qatar, FIFA still views widespread human rights abuses as a problem for someone else.
“This feudal system existed [in Qatar] before the World Cup,” Theo Zwanzinger, a German FIFA executive, said in February. “What do you expect of a football organisation? FIFA is not the lawmaker in Qatar.”