A dangerous game: Qatar’s World Cup workers remain at risk

In April 2014  DLA Piper, a London-based legal firm released a report entitled  “Migrant Labour in the Construction Sector in the State of Qatar.” Qatar’s government had commissioned the report in light of numerous allegations about the treatment of  its foreign workers.  The small Gulf state had shocked the sporting world and come under scrutiny after it was awarded football’s World Cup 2022 in December 2010. The successful bid remains mired in allegations of corruption and bribery, all of which the Qataris deny. What was undeniable was the vulnerability of Qatar to well -founded criticism of the exploitation of the migrant work force. FIFA, the body that awarded the world cup to Qatar, was initially unconcerned that the building of infrastructure, including five stadiums, would happen on the backs of workers who were poorly paid, forced to live in squalid dormitories and to work in high temperatures and in dangerous and insecure conditions.

However when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) began to raise issues about migrant workers in the Gulf state and tied them to the World Cup, FIFA sat up and took notice.  So too did the government of Qatar. Hence the DLA Piper report. (Rather curiously it is no longer available online but the writer has a hard copy.) The study forensically examined existing legislation and international conventions ratified by Qatar and noted consistent and significant failures in enforcing the law and punishing violations. It also detailed those areas where legislation was lacking as well as commenting on the very poor quality of inspections provided by the Department of Labour

DLA Piper made more than 120 recommendations and by doing so confirmed the severity of the exploitation of impoverished workers, many of them from Asia. Here is one of the key recommendations: “the State of Qatar adopt a comprehensive set of worker welfare standards setting out the minimum mandatory requirements for all public contracting authority construction projects in Qatar.”

The report’s authors were well aware of just how important that recommendation was because they noted the high level of fatalities among migrant workers and that many of the deaths were attributed to “natural causes” related to “sudden cardiac death.”  It was listed as the main cause of death among the top five migrant worker populations in Qatar. The figures in 2012 alone are shocking: “the number of sudden cardiac deaths were as follows: Nepal (107), India (105), Philippines (37), Bangladesh (34) and Sri Lanka (21),” a total of 304. To give that some perspective, the number of deaths from all causes in the construction sector in the UK in 2017/18 was 38.

Given the extraordinarily high number of deaths listed as sudden cardiac arrest, DLA Piper recommended an independent study into migrant worker heart seizure deaths be carried out “over the next three years”.  The report also recommended that the law be changed to allow for autopsies or post-mortem examinations “in cases of all unexpected or sudden deaths.” Neither of those recommendations were followed through on.

However the government of Qatar has carried out what is generally viewed as significant reforms in the migrant worker sector.  In 2014, for example, it announced an end to the Kafala system, effectively a form of indentured labour that ties workers to the company or individuals employing them. It made the withholding of workers’ passports by their employers illegal. In 2015 Qatar introduced an electronic payment system intended to ensure that workers were paid and on time. In 2017 a minimum wage for migrants was introduced and set at 750 riyals a month. That’s about £160. (It is worth noting that per capita Qatar is the wealthiest country in the world thanks to its huge reserves of natural gas.) In 2018 the government established a Dispute Resolution Committee to deal with worker complaints.

All of these reforms were enough for the ILO to end its investigation into abuse and exploitation in the building of the World Cup and to praise what it called “very encouraging developments.”

But a recent undercover investigation by the German broadcaster WDR casts serious doubt on just how much praise the Qataris deserve. The investigation focuses on the plight of Nepali workers, highlighting poor living conditions, the non-payment of wages, the withholding of passports as well as allegations of cruel and abusive treatment inflicted on the workers by Tawasol, a company involved in the building of one of the World Cup stadiums. This despite the reforms Qatar claims to have put into place.

The report notes statistics from the Nepali government that confirm that in the past ten years 1,426 Nepali migrants have died in Qatar, with the cause of death of 522 listed as sudden cardiac arrest. How many are related to the World Cup is not known for the simple reason that the Qatari government is not providing the data.  That ought to have been assembled by the Health Ministry and turned over to the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (the body charged with overseeing the World Cup) to be made available on request.

In 2014, DLA Piper called for Qatar to be “more transparent and encourage the dissemination of information in relation to work-related and non-work-related injuries and deaths in Qatar.” But transparency in relation to worker deaths appears to be something that the government is not committed to. In 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) in expressing its concerns, called on the Qatari government to “investigate the causes of migrant worker deaths, regularly make public (the) data on such deaths, and use the information to devise appropriate public health policies.”  However HRW noted that Qatari public health officials “have not responded to requests for information about the overall number and causes of deaths of migrant workers since 2012.”

It should be of deep concern to Qatar, to FIFA and to the ILO that so many workers are dying in the building of the World Cup facilities. Citing “natural causes” and “sudden cardiac arrest” as causes of death without any effort to establish what is behind the shockingly high numbers is a dereliction of duty on the part of the Qataris and a stain on the reputation of all three.

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