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.