Qatar Claims No Migrant Workers Have Died for the World Cup. Could That Be True?

Allegations of corruption at the highest levels of FIFA has put the spotlight on the 2022 World Cup host's human rights record.


Late Tuesday, Qatar’s embassy in the United States blasted out a statement to reporters that was unusual both for its vehemence and its target. The Washington Post, the statement claimed, had erred in reporting that as many as 1,200 migrant workers had died while working on projects related to the 2022 World Cup — and that as many as 4,000 could perish before the tournament takes place. “This is completely untrue,” the statement, attributed to Saif al-Thani of the Qatari Government Communications Office, said. “In fact, after almost five million work-hours on World Cup construction sites, not a single worker’s life has been lost. Not one.”

The article in question examined Qatar’s record of mistreating the millions of migrant workers who have streamed into the country to work in its booming construction sector. For years, human rights groups have been beating the drum against Qatar for the inadequate facilities used to house such workers and the conditions under which they labor. Qatari laws preventing migrant workers from leaving the country or switching jobs without their employer’s permission have led some observers to argue that the country is effectively relying on slave labor to massively expand its infrastructure ahead of the 2022 tournament. One estimate puts Qatar’s pre-tournament spending at a mind-boggling $200 billion.

But have 1,200 workers really died to make the World Cup possible? Terrible as the Qatari human rights record may be, the embassy is right to say that the Post article garbled some of the legitimate labor issues in the Gulf state. Though the paper didn’t return requests to comment on the spat, since publishing the article the Post has amended the accompanying graphic to clarify that the 1,200 figure includes the migrant workers who have died in Qatar since it was awarded the World Cup in 2010 and not just on tournament-specific projects:

The Qatari argument obviously turns on a narrow premise — that no worker has died on “World Cup construction sites.” Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Mustafa Qadri, a Gulf researcher at Amnesty International, both said they hadn’t heard of any migrant workers dying while working on stadium construction or other projects that could be definitively tied to the tournament, though McGeehan pointed out that construction has really only started in earnest on one of the stadiums being built.

It is when you expand the circle of relevant construction projects that the full measure of worker abuse in Qatar becomes clear. The 1,200 figure comes from a report put together by the International Trade Union Confederation, and it’s based on data released by two countries with large numbers of migrant workers in Qatar: Nepal and India. (The 4,000 figure was an extrapolation contained in the ITUC report.) Put another way, the numbers show that Qatar is a terrible place to be a migrant worker — even if the primary threat they face isn’t necessarily from the World Cup itself.

Qatari authorities have argued that these deaths should not be surprising given the large number of migrant workers in the country, but human rights advocates have pointed toward the significant number of fatalities stemming from sudden cardiac arrest as evidence that workers are being mistreated. The young men who travel to Qatar for work do not typically fall into the risk group for such cardiac problems, and human rights groups have pointed to anecdotal evidence that migrants are being forced to work without proper access to water and shelter in the blazing Qatari sun as one possible reason why heart failure has become such a widespread problem.

“Given that so much of the current construction boom is World Cup-led and many of these projects, like roads, parks and hotels, will be critical to Qatar’s delivery of the tournament, worker deaths should not be limited only to fatalities on, for example, stadium construction sites,” Qadri said. “There is no question that too many migrant workers have died in Qatar, regardless of the cause.”

In fact, focusing on the deaths of migrant workers can obscure more than it illuminates the issue of labor rights in Qatar. While workplace safety is a major issue facing migrant workers, many are currently being denied their paychecks, living in absolutely squalid conditions, and victims of traffickers who made false promises to bring them to Qatar. Domestic workers in the country aren’t even covered by its labor law, Qadri pointed out.

Migrant workers are dying in large numbers in Qatar; the problem is that the reasons for these deaths are unclear. Qatari authorities disclose very little about such deaths and are loath to investigate causes. The countries that send migrant workers to Qatar also bear some responsibility for the lack of information about the deaths of their own citizens. India, for example, has released only death totals for its migrant workers with no further information, McGeehan said.

Thanks to recently disclosed allegations of corruption in FIFA’s senior ranks and in the bidding process for the Qatar World Cup and other tournaments, human rights conditions in the Gulf state are beginning to gain the attention that they deserve. But the full plight of the Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Indian workers trapped in awful work there is only ever going to be partially captured by the headline figure, “1,200 dead.”

Photo credit: Warren Little/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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