Once the World Cup soccer tournament concludes, decency dictates that someone should put a wrecking ball to Qatar’s Al Bayt and Lusail stadiums, where the opening ceremonies and matches were held. There’s no polite way to say it: bulldozing the World Cup sports facilities is the only way to amplify to the world the cost in migrant construction workers lives in all that was constructed.
All that should remain at the event sites are memorials to hundreds of workers who lost their lives as Qatar sought a place of prestige on the world stage.
The worker safety problems at facilities for the tournament, which was awarded to Qatar in 2010, has been known for a long time.
The Guardian newspaper in 2013 publicized the large number of worker deaths, and a year later, revealed hardships among Nepalese workers. Those from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also toiled on the sports facilities and related infrastructure. In response, the Qatari government commissioned a study that made modest suggestions for reform. Qatar agreed to suspend its Kalafa system for migrant workers, which guaranteed they would be voiceless on safety, health and living conditions.
The official government total was that 40 workers involved in World Cup-related projects valued at tens of billions of dollars had died—but attributed only three deaths to workplace incidents.
In a single television interview in late November, Hassan Al-Thawadi, secretary-general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, who heads work related to World Cup facilities, repeated the government’s official numbers—but then later said that the total migrant worker deaths over a decade of work on all projects, including hotels, was 400 to 500.
The International Labor Organization has a very detailed code of practice on safety and health in construction. It contains most of the important standards, such as evaluating hazards; providing personal protective equipment at no cost to employees; assessing the role of fatigue, heat, cold and noise; and solid systematic reporting of safety incidents.
The draft document could be improved if it clarified and highlighted that no employee should be disciplined or discriminated against for reporting a hazard or incident and that all workers should have the right to stop work they consider dangerous for further review.
The last item may be asking too much of workers used to being deprived of a voice, but global industry firms must raise their own in alarm over Qatar’s record. Projects there and elsewhere also should gain no sustainability credit when minimal safety is unsustained.
Rather than serving as a locus of national competence and progress, Qatar now qualifies as a champion of workplace safety hypocrisy, as the World Cup showcases its indifference to the wellbeing of its globally sourced workforce. Observing international standards is the only way to start to change that.