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April 01, 2014

Qatar and FIFA must act now to stop the deaths of migrant workers and resolve labour rights issues.

[This is a AHRC Statement.]
Qatar, in its desperate rush to host 2022 FIFA World Cup, has emerged as a new killing field for migrant workers mainly from South Asia. With the death toll having gone beyond 1200 already and estimated to reach a staggering high of 4000 before the first ball is kicked in the event opener, it could be nothing else. These deaths have reportedly come from forcing the workers involved in various projects related to the even to work and live in extreme inhuman conditions. The International Trade Union Confederation, for example, had exposed many cases of systemic abuse of migrant labour like forced labour in harsh climatic conditions leading to sudden strokes, withholding access to water even when temperature exceed 50 degree Celsius, confiscation of their passports to prevent them from escaping and so on.
The only thing worse than the deaths is the silence maintained by the world community over the issue despite of it being in the public domain. Just to cite an example, a report in The Guardian elaborated upon the unfolding horror almost a year ago in 2013. The report grimly noted that "[t]his summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022. According to documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha, at least 44 workers died between 4 June and 8 August. More than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents."
The issue was raised even in the European parliament with the officialdom of FIFA in attendance. Similar were the data available with the embassies of the countries these workers came from.  Numbers available with Indian embassy in Doha, for example, put the Indian casualties at 771 while Nepal pegged the same at 385. The forced labour comes from the kafala system prevailing in Qatar for contractual migrant workers. For the uninitiated, workers are tied to their employer and not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without permission under this modern incarnation of slavery.
Despite the unfolding saga, none of the stakeholders from the state of Qatar and the native countries of the migrant workers to FIFA took even the responsibility for the deaths, forget unleashing steps to arrest them immediately. FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in fact, came closest, even if after much criticism from the international trade union and human rights community, to own up that it has 'some responsibility' for workers constructing venues for 2022 World Cup in Qatar even while asserting that it 'cannot interfere in the rights of the workers'. He then held that the living and working conditions of the migrant labor force remained primarily a responsibility of the state of Qatar and secondly of the companies employing them. He did acknowledge that FIFA can help 'resolve this problem through Football' though he did not elaborate how and when. The emptiness of his words, though, is betrayed by a similar in tone, but clearer in meaning, statement of Theo Zwanzinger, Germany's member of the FIFA executive who conceded that the working conditions in Qatar are "absolutely unacceptable" but argued that any attempts of shifting the event would be 'counterproductive'.
The state of Qatar, on the other hand, shrugged the deaths off with an abandon befitting dictatorial regimes. Faced with hard questions, it first went into denial mode and made absurd claims like the numbers of deaths among the Indian community are normal because of their huge numbers. After facing flak for the same, it went on a course correction mode and enacted a Migrant Workers Welfare Charter. The charter pledges that strict standards of health and safety, equal treatment will be taken care of. Another issue was that of payment of wages and confiscation of passports, all of which the government stated will be taken care of. The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee further asserted that the safety, security, health and dignity of workers -- be they professionals or construction workers -- is of paramount importance to it and committed to change working conditions to ensure a lasting legacy of improved worker welfare.
The promises, however, turned out to be nothing more than cosmetic measures as the charter it had drafted 'in close consultation with the International Labor Organization' will apply only on the companies directly building World Cup venues and thereby leaving a humongous section of the migrant workers employed in wider infrastructure projects that are required to handle an influx of players, fans and media.
With both the Kingdom of Qatar and FIFA being cash-surplus, there is no dearth of funds to improve the conditions and stop the deaths immediately. To have an idea of the expenditure on the event, 2011 estimations of the cost of the event were pegged at an astounding $220 billion, about 60 times the $3.5 billion that South Africa spent on the World Cup in 2010.
It is in this context that the inexplicably high death rate of the migrant workers must become an immediate concern for all stakeholders, from hosts and FIFA to the fans. This is high time to assert that no sports event can be bigger than lives of even one death, forget thousands perishing in Qatar. To put things in perspective not a single accidental death had taken place on the construction sites of London Olympics for instance and there is no reason why Qatar and FIFA can be excused for so many.
Thus while all the hype focuses on the hot climatic conditions which would take a toll on the various football teams that would be playing in the World Cup, it is time to take stock of the migrant workforce working in harsh weather conditions, endangering their lives. FIFA which decided to go ahead with its decision to hold a world cup in Qatar, despite perceiving it as a 'risk', is not blame free, it does not own 'some responsibility'; it is fully liable for mounting death toll in Qatar.
The AHRC together with various civil society and labour right organizations calls upon both Qatar and FIFA to act immediately and ensure that no more lives are lost. The AHRC also urges upon Qatar to go for overall labour reforms guaranteeing living wages and the right to collective bargaining for workers.

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