Staggering number of workers said to die as Qatar prepares for World Cup

There’s a place, tucked in the shadows of ethereal skyscrapers that represent Qatar’s immense wealth, where the smell of excrement is strong and men crouch around fetid latrines and drink salt water.

When it’s time to sleep, the men squeeze into 13-by-13 rooms, each separated from the next with a one-inch wood panel. When it’s time to rise, they trudge into 105-degree heat so strong it can kill even healthy 25-year-olds. When it’s time to cook, they use stoves clogged with grease and grime. And when it’s time to relieve themselves? There’s a hole.

The men have traveled far to get to this point — from Nepal, from India, from Bangladesh. Many of them paid thousands of dollars to a recruitment agency that promised a better life. Others have spent years away from their family. All came for the same purpose: To build facilities for the 2022 World Cup that will be hosted by Qatar, the richest country in the world by per capita income.


Migrant laborers at a construction site in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. The 2022 World Cup host is under fire over claims of poor working conditions. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

The men die, say critics. They’ve died by the hundreds — and soon, they many die by the thousands.  That was the conclusion of a  report released last month by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010, it said, more than 1,200 men have died in preparations.  It projected that if things don’t improve dramatically by 2022, more than 4,000 could die.

Qatar has denied those figures, as well as the charges made by other investigations. “No one has died on World Cup projects,” the country’s organizing committee said. “The International Trade Union Confederation report is littered with factual errors and attempts to discredit the positive work we are undertaking.”

The agency, however, does more than discredit the country. It has delivered a full-blown indictment.

Qatar is a country without a conscience,” declares the report, which hasn’t spurred substantive reform in Qatar, according to the Daily Record. “Fundamental rights and freedoms do not exist for workers in Qatar whether for poor migrant workers or highly paid professional expatriates.”

The men building the World Cup stadium definitely fall into the former category. And today, it appears they have no way out. They’re trapped in Qatar by a system called “kafala,” which governs migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and a number of smaller Middle East states.

It works like this: Workers are dependent upon their employers for sponsorship, and in return, employers have nearly complete control over them. They dictate whether a migrant employee lives in Qatar, or leaves the country, or changes jobs. Employers sometimes confiscate workers’ passports, all but imprisoning them.

According to Migrant Rights, there are as many as 600,000 migrant workers “in conditions of forced labor” in the Middle East. Nearly 15,000 complaints of “unpaid wages and benefits” have emerged in Kuwait alone.

But while the custom is relatively common across the Middle East, the Qatar World Cup is one of the first times kafala has come under international scrutiny during preparation for the globe’s most-publicized sporting event. By comparison, only seven workers were killed in the lead-up to Brazil’s World Cup, to be held this June. Two workers were killed before South Africa’s 2010 games. And before the Beijing Olympics, 10 workers died.

What has gone so wrong in Qatar? It began with the migrant dream.

After the nation of 2 million people — which consistently posts a per capita income of more than $100,000 – was awarded the World Cup in a controversial selection, recruiting agencies got to work. The average fee they charged was $1,000. For it, the agencies promised “high wages and good-working conditions in the Gulf,” the ITUC report says. “Of course, these promises [were] rarely realized. Workers often borrow large sums of money at high rates of interest to pay the recruitment fee. The outstanding debt is what forces workers to remain in abusive situations.”

“We are trapped in a nightmare,” one World Cup worker told the Daily Record last week. “We are treated like animals, not human beings.”

Heart attacks from working in temperatures that can easily top 105 degrees account for many of the deaths as well as “diseases from squalid living conditions,” the ITUC report states.

Despite international condemnation, Qatar hasn’t moved to abolish kafala or protected the migrant workers in conditions that critics claim kill dozens each month. “After two full years of negotiations, Qatar has not demonstrated any serious intention to fix this and therefore we are now calling to FIFA to rerun the vote,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said.

“If nothing changes,” Burrow added, “the World Cup will be a human tragedy.”


Foreign construction workers at a construction site in Doha. Though reforms are promised, nothing has changed. (EPA)
Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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