Critics Decry Qatar Migrant Workers’ Deaths And Human Rights Challenges Ahead Of 2022 World Cup

Photo/ Kai Pfaffenbach – Reuters

A growing number of critics are accusing the Qatar government and private construction firms of fuelling systemic exploitation of migrant workers as the country prepares to host the 2022 World Cup. 

Some workers have died in unexplained circumstances while building soccer venues. 

Barun Ghimire, a Nepal human rights lawyer, described the 2022 World Cup as “the blood diamond of World Cups.” The lawyer is representing families of Nepal migrant workers who’ve died in Qatar. He said that in some instances the families were only informed days after the death, and even then, they were hardly told of the cause.

“It’s a bloodstained cup. Everyone knows migrant workers are dying. And they [the workers] did not know about this risk,” he told NBC News. 

Ghimire has been lobbying the Nepali government to stop the cycle of abuse, which he says starts in Nepal with recruitment agencies loaning poor vulnerable people to cover airfare and migration fees at high interest rates. He said that migrant workers who don’t die in Qatar often end up in debt traps.

“These stadiums and facilities are constructed on the dead bodies of migrant workers from one of the poorest regions in the world,” he added.

50 migrant workers died in Qatar in 2020

Most of the migrant workers are from Kenya, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. They wake up before dawn to take a designated bus from the accommodations to work on stadiums. The trip, which lasts for hours, is in high temperatures regularly reaching 102 degrees Fahrenheit. A construction worker told NBC that their shifts start at 6 am.

Some workers have died of heat exhaustion. 

A report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) revealed that as many as 50 migrant workers died in work-related accidents in 2020. Most of them were from road accidents or falls. 38,000 more workers suffered work-related injuries, 500 of them being severe injuries. 

But the report didn’t specify how many of the incidents were from World Cup construction sites.

However, ILO acknowledged that some work-related fatalities had not been properly recorded due to lack of information and errors by front-line medical staff. It called for a review into how the Qatari government investigates the death of healthy young men who die from “natural causes.”

Human rights group, Amnesty International, alleged that Qatari authorities failed to investigate thousands of migrant worker deaths in the last decade. It says that some of the deaths occured before the World Cup projects began due to unsafe working conditions. 

“These men are seemingly healthy, they have passed their tests to work in Qatar, and yet they die at a young age and their death certificate just states either natural causes, cardiac arrest or respiratory failure,” May Romanos, an Amnesty International researcher on workers’ rights in the Gulf region, said.

He added that the weather conditions in the country, particularly the heat, was also a concern.

The Qatari government refuted the findings, arguing that its migrant workers’ safety and mortality statistics are in line with international standards. 

According to the Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy of the 2022 World Cup, the country has only recorded 38 deaths of migrants working on official World Cup projects since 2015 . Thirty-five of those deaths were classified as “non-work-related.”

Qatari labour reforms

The government said that “no other country has come so far on labor reform in such a short amount of time.”

According to the Government Communications Office of Qatar, the country was committed to improving the working standards for migrant workers in Qatar. It said the government would constructively engage both international partners and critics towards achieving this.

Qatar has already introduced a number of reforms aimed at streamlining its labour market.

Among the reforms include a ban on working outside during the hottest part of the day, minimum monthly wages of 1,000 riyals (around $275), annual health checks, and payments for food and accommodation if they aren’t included in contracts.

During the summer, work shifts start at 10 am and end at 3.30 pm. This is intended to prevent heat exhaustion. 

It also scrapped the Kafala system which required migrant workers to give up their passports to their employers so they couldn’t change jobs or leave the country. Trade union groups have described the system, which is still common across the Middle East, as as a form of modern slavery.

Football bodies join call to improve Qatar working conditions

The football world took notice of the campaign for better working conditions and are lending their voice to the cause. 

The Denmark national team released a statement saying that it wouldn’t take part in World Cup promotional activities. This is intended to “mark the continuing struggle for the improvement of human rights in Qatar.” 

Instead, it will replace the logos of commercial sponsors on its jerseys with what it termed as “critical messages.”

The German and Norway national teams took to the field in March 2021 wearing shirts emblazoned with human rights slogans.

But FIFA said that the World Cup has significantly contributed to the improvement of labour conditions in Qatar. 

“The robustness of this program has been recognized repeatedly by experts and trade unions over the years, and as stated in a recent U.N. report, constitutes ‘impressive changes’ and ‘sweeping reforms’ within the country,” Alois Hug, a FIFA spokesperson, said.

In September, Labour.Watch wrote on the plight of former migrant workers from Kenya and Nigeria in Qatar. You can read about their experiences here.

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