How many people do you need to kill to host a World Cup?

If the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the UAE actually cared about the safety of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf, this would have been a pretty good rationale for withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar:

A report from the International Trade Union Confederation says 1,200 migrant workers from India and Nepal have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the 2022 World Cup.

The ITUC estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will die by the time the first game is played in 2022. The report is in line with recent death numbers from the embassies of the two countries.

The Nepalese embassy in Qatar reported last month that 400 Nepalese workers had died working on World Cup projects since 2010. The Indian embassy reported that 500 Indian workers had died in Qatar since 2012. There are 1.4 million migrant workers in Qatar, the ITUC reports, many of whom are now tasked with building the infrastructure necessary to host a World Cup from scratch.

Just by comparison, preparations for the recent Sochi Olympics saw around 60 worker deaths, and the 2004 Athens Olympics suffered 40 worker deaths, and those are easily the two largest figures for any Olympics or World Cup this century, so “1200 going on 4000” worker deaths is utterly appalling.

The entire ITUC report reads like a dystopian nightmare in which the migrant workers have the status of indentured servants and are literally being worked to death by their Qatari employers for minimal pay (which is frequently less than what those workers were promised when they were recruited to go work in Qatar).

“Julie” is a cleaner from the Philippines:

I signed up in Manila to be a waitress. However, our company forced some of us to work two shifts, first working as cleaners in schools all morning, from 6:00 am -12:00 pm, and then working in hotels in food service and housekeeping from 3:00 pm-12:00 am in some of the most luxurious hotels in Doha. The company driver picked us up at 1am. We got so little sleep. We worked 26 days a month, all but Fridays, and even then our manager would yell at us to work on our one day off.

I have to return to my labour camp by 23:00. If I return late, my employer makes salary reductions without notifying me.

After being in Qatar for five years, I would like to take my annual leave and go back home for a short visit. The company practice is that the manager demands a deposit payment of US$ 275 – an amount which I cannot afford in addition to the price of the ticket.

“Benigno,” a driver also from the Philippines:

I signed a contract with a recruitment agency in the Philippines authenticated by the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration and promising a payment of US$ 484 per month.

But when I arrived in Qatar, my employer told me this contract was invalid. He confiscated my passport and then presented me with another contract with a payment of US$ 376 per month. We refused to sign this contract because we were misled into this situation. However, I still started to work for the company because I have to pay back my debts back home of US$ 471.

My colleagues and I are aware of the injustice that is done to us, but we are afraid to complain to the authorities. We see that workers who do complain are either blacklisted, deported or threatened. Our managers told us that workers who go on strike get deported within 12 hours.

A Nepalese carpenter named “Raju” had his retina detached when he was struck in the eye with a nail while working in rainy conditions without having been given safety goggles. He had to go to the labor court to try to get compensation for his injury. He had to pay out of his own pocket to have court documents translated from Arabic to Nepali.

The mistreatment is ubiquitous and can be seen in construction and road crews, where workers are forced to work even in on summer days when the temperature approaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit, to domestic workers, who are routinely abused by their employers, and even to workers in Doha’s swank Education City complex, where many prestigious Western universities (whose leaders frankly ought to be ashamed of themselves) have satellite campuses whose offices are cleaned and staffed by migrants making $220 or so per month.

There are several individual stories in the report, but it’s the photographs of the squalor in which these workers are forced to live that is most striking. The ITUC investigators did two things right: they counted deaths due to “natural causes” (since being forced to perform intensive labor in 120 degree summer heat and then dying of a heart attack is not “natural”) and unsafe living conditions right alongside deaths due to actual workplace mishaps

Whether the cause of death is labelled a work accidents, 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.

and they went to worker camps outside the Qatari capital, Doha, where migrant workers live in awful conditions but still better than what they’re forced to live in elsewhere in the country. In Al Wakrah, whose football stadium is being expanded from 20,000 seats to around 45,000 seats in advance of the World Cup (and in an effort to build Al Wakrah up into a major city), workers, who had their passports confiscated (which is supposed to be illegal) and were expected to survive on around US$220 per month, were found to be living in the half-finished stadium, sleeping ten to a room and cooking and eating in unsanitary conditions.

The Qataris insist that the ITUC report is bogus because it totally doesn’t give them the ‘A’ they deserve for effort. Their Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy issued a statement that contained an impressive amount of words given that none of them, when put together, actually say anything:

“The International Trade Union Confederation’s statement that our standards have no credible enforcement mechanism is hence both incorrect and misleading,” the committee said. “We know that there are issues. While this process of change is not something that can be achieved overnight, we have the will and the commitment to see it through.”

Sure, definitely they’ve got the will to something something. Except that there has been a series of reports like this one done since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup almost four years ago, and it’s apparent in every one of them that not a single thing has changed in Qatar’s labor policy since the previous report was done. Nobody is asking for the system to be completely fixed overnight, but some sign of change in four freaking years is not asking too much. Maybe instead of talking about their “commitment to see it through,” the Qataris should actually do something about the problem.

Everybody knows what the solutions are: break the kafalah system that keeps migrant workers at the total whim of their Qatari “sponsors” (a euphemism for “masters”), establish a wage structure that does not discriminate by nationality the way the current system does, enforce the law when it comes to confiscating passports, allow workers to freely associate and unionize, stop charging new workers a “recruitment fee” (a direct violation of international labor law), provide reasonable accommodations, and start protecting domestic workers from abusive employers. Hell, just hiring enough inspectors to actually visit all the work sites and camps around the country, and enforcing the laws that are already on the books, would be a start. Some of these changes would cost money, I realize, but the country with the largest per capita GDP in the world can probably afford to shell out a few bucks here and there to try to keep the workers who support its economic largesse alive.

The ITUC report contends that “[i]f FIFA demand[s] Qatar abolish kafala and respect fundamental international rights, it will happen.” That’s probably true, but good luck waiting for FIFA to do anything of the kind. It’s quite clear how FIFA operates:

Jack Warner, the former vice-president of Fifa, appears to have been personally paid $1.2 million (£720,000) from a company controlled by a former Qatari football official shortly after the decision to award the country the tournament.

I wonder if FIFA charges a flat bribe rate per worker killed, or if it’s a sliding scale. Probably a sliding scale.

2 thoughts on “How many people do you need to kill to host a World Cup?

  1. I live in Qatar, and have been here for a handful of years (off and on) and you’d be surprised (or not so much) at how quiet they are about the treatment of the migrant workers. I know through articles like this, and the fact I see how looked down upon these migrant workers are, to know the extent of the maltreatment. It’s absolutely disgusting.

    1. I remember when I was working there, every time we’d go to dinner with our Qatari colleagues some of them would invariably be irritated by the fact that my American colleagues and I would insist on tipping. The Qataris, who live in the richest country in the world per capita and are showered with oil and gas largesse by their government, complained that we would spoil the waitstaff, who were all making $300 a month max and living in absolute squalor.

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