Migrant workers at Qatar's world cup stadium. Photo: Getty.
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400 Nepalese construction workers have died since Qatar won the World Cup bid

Why are international sporting events so dangerous for construction workers?

Around 400 Nepalese workers have died in construction sites across Qatar since the oil-rich Gulf state won the bid to host the 2022 football World Cup, according to a report by the human rights organisation the Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee, which is due to be released later this week. Some are warning that the death toll could rise to 4000 by the time the games are held.

When it comes to big sporting events – whether it’s the ongoing winter Olympics at Sochi, or the Fifa world cup taking place in Brazil later this year – the focus is often on protecting athletes and spectators. Much less attention is paid to those who lose their lives building the stadiums that are used, not only as sporting venues, but as symbols of international prestige. And yet, for construction workers, international sporting events are a dangerous business. According to the Washington Post 25 workers died on building sites for Sochi’s winter Olympics, although some estimates place this figure as high as 60. Reuters reports that six people have died at World Cup construction sites in Brazil too.

One of the under-reported achievements of the London Olympics was that no workers were killed while constructing the Olympic stadiums. This was an unprecedented achievement: two died while constructing the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, one in Sydney in 2000, 14 in Greece in 2004 and 10 during the building of the Beijing Olympic stadiums. 

So why are international sporting events so dangerous for the construction workers involved? Construction is a dangerous industry – according to UK government figures, five per cent of the UK workforce is employed in construction, but the sector accounts for 26 per cent of at work fatalities. In 2012 39 construction workers died on the job, equivalent to 1.9 deaths per 100,000. But – as the London Olympics demonstrated – strong health and safety standards can keep deaths and injuries to a minimum. The deaths we have seen in the run up to other big sporting events are not inevitable.

Those working in Qatar face long days of hard labour in the searing heat – so as well as accidents, many died of cardiac arrest. The disgusting lack of concern for worker safety is reflective of a broader disinterest in the rights of the migrant workforce. The kafala sponsorship system, common to many Gulf states, means that workers can’t leave the country without their employer’s permission. They are not allowed to unionise, and so have no way of protesting the cramped, unsanitary conditions they are forced to live in, or their unsafe working environment. Many have also had their passports confiscated, and have been forced to pay high recruitment fees that mean they are tied into dangerous, underpaid work – as Human Rights Watch reports. 

Similarly, in Sochi migrant construction workers were forced to work 12-hour shifts, often without contracts, safety training or insurance. As the Economist noted, some had their passports confiscated, and were either paid late or not paid at all.

Much has been made of the fact that both Sochi and Qatar shouldn't have been picked as sporting venues because they are too hot: there were fears that Sochi wouldn’t have enough snow, and Qatar will have to air-condition its stadiums. But a far bigger concern ought to be that both sporting venues have shown a callous disregard for the rights and safety of the construction workers helping to realise their international ambitions. Governments know that successful international games are excellent PR – and organisations like Fifa and the IOC need to stop offering this opportunity to countries that are happy to sacrifice workers’ lives in the process.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.