Image Credit: Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy
Last month, it was announced that over 6500 migrant workers had lost their lives while working on infrastructure for the Qatar 2022 World Cup since construction began. The country won the rights to stage next year’s tournament way back in 2010 and ever since then, it has been surrounded by controversy and tragedy – a ball is yet to be kicked.
Within a year of Qatar being announced as host, allegations of corruption being prominent in the bidding process were made, with top FIFA officials being accused of accepting bribes. Since then, many senior figures at the governing body have been arrested or removed from their roles. Despite the alleged sleaze surrounding next year’s tournament, the major catastrophe has been concerning the building of the stadia to host fixtures. A report by The Guardian last week shockingly confirmed that at least 6500 migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India had died since Qatar won the rights to host the tournament; the exact figure is expected to be far greater since migrant workers from other nations have not been included in these statistics. It is estimated that there have been 12 deaths per week since 2010.
FIFA has a strict criterion which all venues must meet for them to stage World Cup fixtures. These include minimum capacity levels, as well as having enough room to house media personnel and equipment. Qatar did not have sufficient grounds which were able to fulfil FIFA’s requirements, and a large national infrastructure project was started, to ensure the country was ready to host an event as significant as the World Cup. This included the building of stadia, roads, a metro system, hotels and the entire city of Lusail – which is due to host next year’s final.
The treatment of those hired to construct the stadiums, millions of which have been immigrants, has been heavily criticised. Ever since building started a decade ago, these workers have been subject to exploitation and abuse; reports from The Guardian say that workers are being made to complete forced labour, work without pay and complete excessive hours in the hot Middle-Eastern sun. Another report from the human rights group Amnesty International states: "They can’t change jobs, they can’t leave the country, and they often wait months to get paid." Amnesty International also concluded from their report that migrant workers are treated poorly on arrival in Qatar. Workers are promised salaries before they immigrate, but end up with a significantly lower wage on arrival. Many also have to put up with dirty living conditions, overcrowding and high recruitment fees.
There have been attempts to play down the significant loss of life. The overwhelming majority of deaths have been attributed to “natural causes”, citing issues such as cardiac arrest and respiratory failure. According to The Guardian, the most common cause of death is respiratory and heart failure, linked to the long hours worked in the blistering summer heat. However, other reasons for death such as electrocution, injuries due to falling from heights and suicide are also cited. The Qatari government has not denied any statistics suggested in these reports but argued that the death toll was to be “expected” in a statement. “The mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population," the statement reads. “Every lost life is a tragedy, and no effort is spared in trying to prevent every death in our country.” A previous report from The Guardian suggests that the majority of classifications are made without an autopsy, failing to provide medical explanations for deaths, despite the Qatari’s government’s own lawyers advising to “allow for autopsies … in all cases of unexpected or sudden death” in 2014. The report also suggests that there is a lack of transparency concerning the recording of deaths, with inconsistencies in figures and government bodies reluctant to share data. Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher May Romanos, has called for Qatar to do more to protect its workers. “There is a real lack of clarity and transparency surrounding these deaths,” said Romanos. “There is a need for Qatar to strengthen its occupational health and safety standards.”
Historically, Qatar’s human and workers’ rights have been poor. It wasn’t until 2017 that a minimum wage was set. Other reforms to increase safety at work and workers’ freedoms did not become law until 2018. Yet, this legislation has been very poorly implemented and not effectively enforced, with many employers confiscating passports and forcing their workers to pay recruitment fees.
Despite the tragic loss of life being witnessed, FIFA has continued to back the project. In a response to The Guardian’s report published earlier this year, they said: "With the very stringent health and safety measures on-site…the frequency of accidents on FIFA World Cup construction sites has been low when compared to other major construction projects around the world.” The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy in Qatar has strongly condemned the treatment of workers and says they are learning from every incident. “We deeply regret all of these tragedies and investigated each incident to ensure lessons were learned. We have always maintained transparency around this issue and dispute inaccurate claims around the number of workers who have died on our projects,” a statement from the committee reads.
However, there have been grumblings of discontent from the footballing world. Norwegian second-tier side Tromsø IL has also strongly criticised FIFA’s lack of action. The club released a statement in February, becoming the first team to call for a boycott of the tournament and encouraging the Norwegian Football Association to support such action, due to the reports of the high toll and the poor treatment of workers in Qatar. They became trailblazers in Norway, with many other clubs in the country supporting the boycott.
There have also been political movements to boycott the World Cup. Last year, Danish fan Casper Fischer created a petition which sought to ask the national team to boycott the tournament, also citing human rights issues in Qatar as the reason. The petition is yet to receive the required 50,000 signatures to be debated in the parliament. “We do not believe that we, as a democratic nation striving to live up to global human rights, can benefit from having some of the country’s most prominent sporting players participate in the finals and blue-stamp a dictatorship like Qatar,” the petition states. However Danish MP Karsten Honge - from the Socialist People’s Party - has supported the need for parliamentary debate, even if the petition fails to reach the required signatures, arguing that a debate would “put maximum pressure on Qatar to improve human rights and workers’ rights,” she told The Independent. The DBU (Danish football association) confirmed that they will not boycott the tournament unless instructed to by the government.
FIFA has responded to mounting pressures to postpone the tournament, by arguing that holding the festival of football would in fact generate change concerning human rights. “We don’t think that a boycott of the World Cup would be the right approach or would serve any useful purpose to address any human rights issues in Qatar,” a FIFA spokesperson told The Independent. “To be frank, we actually think that engagement and dialogue is the best way to promote understanding of universal human rights values.”
Currently, the 2022 World Cup looks almost certain to take place next winter, with qualification matches for the tournament set to be held later this year.