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Will Qatar's World Cup Games Be Played Over Workers' Bodies?

Sep 27, 2013
Originally published on September 27, 2013 5:17 pm

These reports this week from The Guardian are stunning:

-- Qatar World Cup construction 'will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead'

-- Revealed: Qatar's World Cup 'slaves'

-- Qatar failing on forced labour, says UN agency

The key conclusion from the Guardian's reporting is basically this:

As contractors begin work on the infrastructure, stadiums, hotels and other things being built so that Qatar can host soccer's World Cup in 2022, a disturbing number of immigrant workers (most from Nepal) are dying. There were at least 44 such deaths between June 4 and Aug. 8 alone.

Workers and Nepalese officials say men aren't being paid, aren't being given adequate food, are being forced to live in horrible conditions and have been denied water even when the heat's been brutal. Many of the deaths have been from suspected heart attacks, not on-the-job accidents.

Doing a bit of extrapolation, the International Trade Union Confederation warns that "more than 4000 workers risk losing their life over the next seven years as construction for World Cup facilities gets under way if no action is taken to give migrant workers' rights."

(The ILO refers to itself as "the global voice of the world's working people.")

Qatari officials do not dispute that there's a problem. The contractors tell the Guardian that they will take action.

But as the Guardian's Robert Booth told NPR on Friday, the issue confronting officials of soccer's governing body — FIFA — when they meet next week will be:

Can they "insure that the world community [and] also the football community is assuaged and is happy that the stadiums where the world's best players are going to be playing are not being built over the bodies, essentially, of workers?"

Much more from the conversation with Booth is due on Friday's All Things Considered. We'll add the as-broadcast interview to the top of this post later. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate Qatar, there are fewer than 2 million people. And of them, less than 15 percent are actually Qatari nationals. The overwhelming majority are foreign workers. And the project that most of those workers are engaged in these days is preparing Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. That means completing a new airport, building nine state-of-the-art stadiums, new roads, a causeway, a high-speed rail network and more than 50,000 hotel rooms. The estimates of what this will cost range up to $220 billion.

And The Guardian newspaper reports a still more horrifying estimate, and that is that the construction in Qatar will cost the lives of 4,000 migrant workers. The paper describes the conditions under which Nepalese migrants work as amounting to modern-day slavery as defined by the International Labor Organization. Robert Booth is one of the reporters on this story and he joins us now. Where does the projection of 4,000 deaths come from?

ROBERT BOOTH: So that is a conservative estimate, I'm afraid, which emerges from the calculations made by the International Trades Union Confederation, which has been very hot on this situation for the last couple of years. And what they've done is they've looked at the rates of deaths among Nepali and Indian workers at the moment who are in Qatar, and they've extrapolated that for the next eight years before a ball is kicked in the 2022 World Cup and estimated that, unless there are significant changes in the working conditions, that is the number that will die in the meantime.

SIEGEL: The Guardian has reported on the deaths of Nepalese workers just this past summer in Qatar and often from heart failure, I gather. What have you found?

BOOTH: Yes. Well, my colleagues who were reporting on the ground in Qatar and Nepal discovered that there were 44 Nepalese died between the fourth of June and the eighth of August and that they died from a number of causes, some being workplace accidents but many being heart failure or heart attacks. At least, that is the attribution. It leaves it rather up in the air exactly why they died. Of course, what we do know, there's been a lot of ill health because of insanitary conditions in the living quarters as well as the very long, tough working days in temperatures as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

SIEGEL: Yes. How would you describe the typical work conditions of people who were doing construction in Qatar these days?

BOOTH: Well, the most arduous conditions that we've found have been Nepali and Indian laborers describing days as long as 15 hours, sometimes only eating one relatively frugal meal in that entire period, working in those high temperatures. And the key problem apart from the sheer back-breaking nature of the work is that many of these workers simply aren't being paid.

SIEGEL: Let's go back to the big headline number here, the projection of 4,000 deaths. Let's assume that some workers would die in a humanely managed construction project. If it takes more than 10 years and employs tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, what would be an expected number?

BOOTH: Well, yes, that's a - I mean, it's a difficult question to answer because part of that has to do with the demography of the workers. But the ITUC, the International Trades Union group, when I asked them the same question, said that the death rate among migrant workers in Qatar in terms of onsite construction deaths was currently running at around five times that in the U.K. at the moment. Many of these deaths aren't just related to accidents or the safety problems onsite, but they're more to do with the workers being worked into the ground.

SIEGEL: What have the Qataris said in response to the Guardian's reporting?

BOOTH: Well, the Qataris have said themselves they have been shocked by the reporting that we've done and have made a number of assurances that they mean very well with the World Cup and that they intend it to be a moment in which the country shows the best of itself. I mean, there are, of course, concerns that those words need to be turned into action, and there's growing pressure on the Qatari government and its leadership to act on this, not least from the football authorities.

And there's a sense that next week when FIFA meets in Zurich, this is certainly going to be on their agenda, and they will have to do some careful thinking about how they ensure that the world community but also the football community is happy that the stadiums where the world's best players are going to be playing are not being built over the bodies, essentially, of workers.

SIEGEL: Mr. Booth, thank you very much for talking with us.

BOOTH: Thanks very much. You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's senior reporter Robert Booth of the Guardian. He was talking about the paper's report on the high number of construction worker deaths forecast in Qatar as that country prepares for the World Cup in 2022. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.