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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era