Sporting Greatness Built on Migrant Exploitation

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A collection of findings has revealed that on average 12 migrant workers die every week in Qatar as the country prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

Records from different countries’ governments have found that 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in 10 years in the richest country in the world. The figures, though staggering, are likely an underestimate.

Since Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup prestigious event, the country has embarked on a giant construction programme to build seven stadiums, pulling a large amount of new labour to Doha, the capital city.

It is likely that many of these migrant workers were employed to work on the development of the new infrastructure which would also host the upcoming games.

There have been 37 deaths linked to the construction of the World Cup stadium, while 34 have been classified as “non-work related”. Deaths that have occurred during work hours such as heart attacks from overdue stress on the body are not included.

migrant workers Qatar world cup sporting events
The Lusail Stadium has the capacity to hold 80,000 spectators [Image: Supreme Committee for Deliverancy and Legacy]

Migrant Worker Deaths Uncounted

Currently, Qatar has over 2 million migrant workers making up a large part of the workforce, many of whom are young people.

6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in 10 years in the richest country in the world

Despite this, death records do not categorise the occupation or place of work of the migrant workers which make locating the exact reasons for deaths extremely difficult.

While the death rate continues to increase, the Qatar government is failing to properly investigate the deaths and take the necessary precautions to protect migrant workers from further risk.

In fact, they have attempted to downplay the rate of deaths by stating that they are in line with normal death rates among white-collar workers. One spokesperson said: ‘The mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population. However, every lost life is a tragedy, and no effort is spared in trying to prevent every death in our country.’

In 2014, a Qatar government lawyer recommended a change in the law to allow for autopsies to be carried out on victims of sudden or unexpected death. The government has not introduced any such law yet

Alex Marshall, President of the Independent Workers of Great Britain, a trade union that challenges laws relating to the gig economy and insecure migrant workers, told ImmiNews: ‘As heartbreaking as these figures are, 6,500 preventable deaths and grieving families, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

‘Conditions for migrant workers in Qatar have long been a silent travesty which should shame not just the Qatari government but also international allies, including Britain, who have a moral responsibility to take action.

Pattern of Behaviour

This is not the first time that officials have recorded high death rates when countries have hosted highly prestigious sporting events.

During the 2012 London Olympics, where the government provided half of the related jobs to migrant workers, it was discovered that recruitment agencies were failing to provide less than the minimum wage.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed migrant workers in Russia ahead of the Winter Olympics who had suffered abuse and exploitation from their employers. Food and accommodation provided were found to be substandard and wages were withheld.

Conditions for migrant workers in Qatar have long been a silent travesty

Just last year, there were reports of migrant workers facing abuse when working on the Olympic stadiums in Tokyo after the International Olympic Committee were accused of ignoring labour violations in Japan.

A Breeding Ground for Labour Exploitation

Many large construction projects need an equally large workforce. To keep costs low, governments and companies will often outsource a lot of the work to recruitment agencies that provide a ready workforce who are willing to work for a low wage.

While on paper this seems like an easy source for jobs, it is more commonly a breeding ground for labour exploitation. Known officially as ‘gangmaster’ these companies offer labour to migrants who are in a precarious financial position and can’t find work elsewhere.

Common types of exploitation include overworking, paying less than the minimum wage, withholding wages and physical or mental abuse.

In a more typical place of work, employers have the option to join a union or bring up workplace issues to a manager which would help in preventing labour exploitation. Unfortunately, migrant workers in these types of jobs don’t have that option.

Joining a union can be very risky for them and could result in job loss, creating a dangerous financial position

Mr Mashall explains that: ‘Proactively supporting workers’ right to organise in trade unions is a vital step towards holding government and employers to account and this is something the international community, as well as World Cup partners, should be demanding.’

While the UK has institutions to fight against and protect workers in these environments, such as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, many countries do not. Ongoing problems with labour rights access and strikes across precarious and migrant workforces in the UK however, means denouncing Qatars actions could potentially force a look closer to home.

Proactively supporting workers’ right to organise is something the international community, as well as World Cup partners, should be demanding

Qatar has seen some improvements in labour laws in the past decade, including the right to free healthcare for foreign workers. On fighting exploitation, there appears to be less of a proactive attitude.

Wasteful show projects rely on a ‘disposable’ population, largely hidden from view. By ignoring or denouncing investigations into suspicious deaths among migrant workers, exploitation continues unchallenged. Despite shows of political activism and solidarity rippling through football, and the sports world at large increasingly over the past year, voices to boycott any such events remain almost totally silent.

[Header image: Red in via Shutterstock]
Written by
Kieran Isgin