December 7, 2022

Construction worker deaths rise in Qatar ahead of World Cup

According to Qatar, there have been 37 deaths of foreign workers linked to World Cup venues.


The number of worker fatalities in Qatar’s giant World Cup campaign may never be known, but the debate has already taken its toll on the name of the Gulf state, experts say.

One of the richest countries in the world, Qatar has been transformed since FIFA awarded the tournament in 2010 with a new metro, skyscrapers, highways, new universities, museums and a port built in next to seven new stadiums and one rebuilt.

Rights groups and the media say thousands of workers may have died on the massive construction sites. The government calls the claims “outrageous and offensive” and says it is considering “legal” action to defend the country’s name.

Qatar, FIFA and the international unions that have lobbied the Gulf state have said more emphasis needs to be put on the reforms it has carried out to improve security, establish a minimum wage and give workers more rights to change jobs and even leave the country.

But with Qatar determined to continue its modernization, it faces pressure from the UN’s International Labor Organization, trade unions and foreign governments to improve its data collection to end the controversy.

Britain’s The Guardian newspaper sparked a major storm with a report in February 2021 that 6,500 workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka died between 2011 and 2020. This was based on the official country figures.

Many other outlets used this to say that 6,500 people died in World Cup stadiums, fueling conspiracy theories on social media.

The ILO, which has had an office in Doha since 2018, called the figures “misleading” and said they had been wrongly linked to World Cup venues without proper context.

The government says the figure takes the deaths of all foreign workers over the decade “and attributes it to the World Cup. That’s not true”.

“This figure (6,500) has become emblematic because it answers a question that no one can answer,” said Jean-Baptiste Guegan, an academic and writer in France on international sports policy.

“One can also wonder, given the publicity it received, if it was not the instrument of a strategy of foreign influence.”

The other figures hardly help the debate.

According to Qatar, there have been 37 deaths of foreign workers linked to World Cup venues and only three in “work accidents”.

“Stuck in Minds”

An ILO report indicates that there were 50 fatalities and 500 serious injuries among foreign workers in 2020.

The UN agency said the figures may be underreported due to weak data.

But Max Tunon, head of the ILO office in Doha, told a recent seminar that the 6,500 figure was “extremely problematic” because “it’s a figure that has stuck in people’s minds and people definitely attribute to the construction of the World Cup stadiums”.

Pointing to a recent debate in the European Parliament on human rights, he added that this figure affects decision-making regarding Qatar.

“It was very evident that the policy makers, including parliamentarians, had very strong positions on Qatar based on what they had read in the media.

“It was not surprising to hear a reference to the figure of 6,500, it was not surprising to hear an assumption that two million migrant workers in the country are victims of forced labour. And it was not not surprising to hear that everyone was associating everything in Qatar with the World Cup. In that sense, it had a concrete impact on policy makers.”

But the ILO is urging Qatar to improve data collection as well as the implementation of its reforms.

Many deaths have just been blamed on “natural causes” and rights groups and others say that may be hiding too many workplace accidents.

“Because Qatar fails to adequately investigate the causes of worker deaths, it is very difficult to know exactly how many workers have died working in Qatar’s extreme heat, but there is no doubt that the problem is extremely serious,” said Steve Cockburn, senior researcher for Amnesty International.

“On World Cup and non-World Cup projects, thousands of deaths over the past decade remain unexplained, and at least hundreds of them are likely to have been linked to unsafe working conditions” , Cockburn added.

(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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