Slavery in Qatar and the Gulf States is nothing new. I have written at length about modern slavery in Dubai and in particular the horrific treatment of construction workers in Dubai. The UAE has a horrendous track record of human rights abuses towards its migrant workers, but unfortunately it is not the only Gulf state that keeps migrant workers in slave-like conditions in the name of cheap labour.
Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world and host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup has long relied on the work of migrants, with 94% of its workforce being foreign workers.
However, with the announcement that Qatar will host the World Cup, the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar has come under scrutiny, and with thousands of construction workers in Qatar dying at rapid rates, many have begun to question the Qatar World Cup deaths and why they are showing no signs of slowing down despite promises by the Qatari government to reform the conditions that migrant workers have to work under and end slavery in Qatar once and for all.
Exposing Slavery in Qatar – Qatar World Cup Deaths
Before we delve into the numbers surrounding the Qatar World Cup deaths, it is important to understand that Qatar migrant workers are not only building the football stadiums, and so these numbers are about more than Qatar stadium deaths. The entire infrastructure programme in Qatar is built around the beginning of the Qatar World Cup with subways, hotels, an airport, a new sewage system in central Doha, new roads, more than 20 skyscrapers, 55,000 hotel rooms, a high-speed rail network and even an entire city are currently being built.
This means that we cannot consider Qatar stadium deaths to be the only Qatar World Cup deaths. While the entire country of Qatar is essentially being rebuilt, we can consider any current construction death in Qatar to be World Cup related.
It should also be noted that it proved extremely difficult for me to get total numbers for Qatar World Cup deaths. Many of the international companies hiring migrant workers in Qatar do not keep detailed records of their workers so it is very difficult to find accurate numbers, and there have also been allegations that Qatar has covered up deaths of workers.
Lastly, much of the information available online is outdated and so you should bear in mind that the following numbers are likely significantly smaller than the actual numbers.
Qatar World Cup Deaths in Numbers
Qatar’s population increased from 1.6 million people in December 2010 to 2.6 million in December 2018, reflecting the large number of migrant workers flooding into Qatar since the World Cup was announced.
Between December 2010 (when the World Cup was awarded to Qatar) and February 2014, 717 migrant workers from India had died in Qatar.
A 135 page report by international law firm DLA Piper commissioned by the Qatari government confirmed that almost 1000 migrant workers in Qatar had died in 2012 and 2013 alone. That’s more than one per week. Some died of workplace accidents, some died of cardiac arrest brought on by extreme heat, and 28 were ruled as suicides.
According to the Nepali government, 1426 Nepali workers had passed away in Qatar between 2009 and 2019.
Gulf News reported earlier this year that various human rights organisations have accused Qatar of covering up the deaths of a further 1200 migrant workers.
A report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) stated that if labour conditions did not improve by the time the World Cup kicks off, at least 4,000 migrant workers in Qatar will have died on the job. With the above figures in mind, this is clearly a conservative estimate.
When we compare the number of Qatar World Cup deaths to the fatalities in other big sporting events, we see a huge disparity. After Qatar, the next highest number of deaths were from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics where 60 people lost their lives and the 2004 Athens Olympics with 40 killed. As you can see, even without knowing the total number of Qatar World Cup deaths, it is clear that something is very very wrong.
Why are there so many Qatar World Cup deaths?
These working conditions and the astonishing number of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labour to the slavery of old where human beings were treated as objects. There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labour. It is already happening.Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International.
Based on my research into this topic, I have concluded that there are three main things that we can attribute to the strikingly high number of Qatar World Cup deaths.
These three things are:
Maltreatment of workers leading to suicide;
Deaths due to excessive heat;
On-site accidents due to a lack of health and safety.
Treatment of Qatar migrant workers
Just like in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, migrant workers in Qatar are treated in what can only be described as an inhumane way, and modern slavery in Qatar is thriving.
Numbers that reflect this can be seen by a recent Amnesty International investigation, which looked into three Qatari companies involved in construction and cleaning (Hamton International, Hamad bin Khaled bin Hamad and United Cleaning) and found that in these three companies alone, at least 1620 workers had submitted formal complaints after their wages stopped for several months before the end of their contracts. In fact, the US State Department estimated that more than 6000 workers had submitted complaints to Qatar’s Committees for the Settlement of Labour Disputes in the past year.
This withholding of wages is common in the Gulf states, with employers often withholding salaries for months at a time to prevent the workers from running away. When you combine the fact that these workers usually arrive in Qatar with huge debts that they owe to unscrupulous recruitment agencies (with interest rates of as much as 48%), as well as the fact that food in Qatar is incredibly expensive and that these men usually have families at home who are financially dependent on them, suicide can sometimes seem like the only option.
One man, who gave his name as SBD, said that ‘The company has kept two months’ salary from each of us to stop us running away.’
Others say that their subcontractor has confiscated their passports and refused to give them the ID cards that they are entitled to under Qatari law, and without which they are reduced to the status of illegal aliens, unable to leave their place of work for fear of arrest and not entitled to any legal protection. A scaffolder, who said that he worked in Qatar for two years without being issued an ID card, says ‘Our manager always promises he’ll issue [our cards] next week.’
Of course, ‘next week’ never comes.
Slavery in Qatar also thrives due to the fact that Qatar also uses the abusive kafala system. This means that migrant workers are bound to their employer and unable to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission. This reduces their status to that of a slave, unable to escape from an abusive or dangerous situation or employer.
When asked about his life working in Qatar, ‘Frank’ from Kenya said the following: ‘When I arrived, I was told that I would be working as an electrician, even though I am not trained, which is dangerous. I got an electric shock on the site once, but thankfully I was OK. Conditions on the sites are very bad. You work all day out in the open in extreme heat. You start at 04:00 and work all day. There is no cold drinking water on the site, just hot water. It is very oppressive. As for the accommodation, I would describe the conditions as pathetic. In the first place I stayed, Al Khor, there were 10 people to one small room, with five bunk beds and nowhere to put anything. The toilets were outside. It was all very inadequate and uncomfortable. You also have to hand over your passport on arrival, so you can’t leave. You feel trapped, like a prisoner.’
In the same report, Steven Ellis from the UK said: ‘I work as a pipe fitter and supervisor and have been on construction sites all over the world. These were the worst conditions I’ve ever seen on any site. There is no drinking water available, there is no air conditioning in their cabins – and this was in 45C heat. They have filthy sanitation, and the food is dished out like in the Oliver Twist movie.’
Ram Kumar Mahara, aged 27, remembers: ‘We were working on an empty stomach for 24 hours; 12 hours’ work and then no food all night. When I complained, my manager assaulted me, kicked me out of the labour camp I lived in and refused to pay me anything. I had to beg for food from other workers.’
With all of this in mind, can it come as any surprise that some workers feel as though they have no option but to take their own lives? The 28 recorded suicides from 2012 and 2013 alone are much more than we would usually expect, and when you consider the fact that these statistics only represent 2 out of 10 years, the actual number will be, of course, much higher, showing the true human cost of slavery in Qatar.
Heat deaths in Qatar
As most of you will know, Qatar is an incredibly hot country, with daytime temperatures in June reaching 47C, and the months of July and August becoming significantly hotter.
This excessive heat can help to explain the numbers of young men who arrive in Qatar fit and healthy before having sudden cardiac arrests. Working in such high temperatures puts an incredible strain on the human cardiovascular system, often resulting in fatal heart attacks and other cardiovascular fatalities.
One thing that points to extreme temperatures being the cause of so many Qatar World Cup deaths is that in the cooler months of the year, only about 22% of deaths each year are attributed to heart attacks or other cardio-related causes, but yet in the summer months this number increases to as much as 58% of all cases.
Dr Dan Atar, professor of cardiology and head of research at Oslo University Hospital, commented that: ‘Young men have a very low incidence of heart attacks yet hundreds of them are dying every year in Qatar attributed to cardiovascular causes. The clear conclusion that I draw from this as a cardiologist is that these deaths are caused by deadly heatstroke. Their bodies cannot take the heat stress they are being exposed to.’
Even though the Qatari authorities have pointed out that they have implemented an order that prohibits manual labour in unshaded areas between 11:30 and 3pm during the summer months, this fails to keep workers safe as even working outside of these times is extremely dangerous, and most companies just ignore the ruling entirely.
With experts advising that it is only safe to work for a maximum of 15 minutes per hour during summer afternoons, migrant workers in Qatar are often being forced to work outside for 10 hours or more, heat is a clear contributing factor in the number of worker deaths that we see in Qatar.
On-site safety…or lack of it
Steven Ellis, the UK pipe fitter quoted earlier, said that what is even worse than the living conditions of the migrant workers in Qatar is ‘the on-site safety, or lack of it. It does not exist, and my friends and I, who went to work there together, were horrified at the risks taken every day on the site.’
This sentiment is echoed by Janak Sapkota, a Katmandu-based journalist who reports on labour migration from Nepal. ‘Most of the international companies working in Qatar do not meet safety requirements and as a result many construction workers lose their lives through this gross negligence of proper safety,’ he told Arab News.
Many of these stadium deaths are due to faulty equipment, with Zachary Cox plummeting to his death after a faulty hoist that he was using to put a suspended walkway in place broke, before his harness also snapped, leaving him to fall 130ft headfirst to the ground. The coroner in the case described the work practices on-site as ‘inherently unsafe.’
Nepalese Tej Narayan Tharu also became a tragic victim of Qatar’s unsafe conditions on-site after he fell to his death while carrying a large board over a 35 metre-high walkway at night. People from another company had removed a floor plate in the walkway without telling the workers, and due to the board he was carrying, Mr Tharu did not see it and fell through.
Is Qatar reforming?
As slavery in Qatar has been such a hot topic, on October 16 of 2019, The Guardian announced that the Gulf country’s ministers had promised to end the abusive kafala system and also to include a ‘non-discriminatory minimum wage,’ which would be the first of its kind in the Middle East (workers from certain countries are routinely paid less than others in the Middle East).
The end of kafala and the introduction of the minimum wage is set to be implemented in January 2020 (2020 update – the Kafala system has not been abolished in Qatar but has been amended to allow workers to leave the country without permission from their employer), just two years before the World Cup is set to begin, and while some may contend that this is too little too late, hopefully for migrant workers in Qatar, conditions may improve.
The International Labour Organisation says that ‘These steps will greatly support the rights of migrant workers, while contributing to a more efficient and productive economy.’
That being said, it is unclear how much faith we should put in the Qatari government to actually enforce these reforms and help end slavery in Qatar. Can we trust that this is anything but lip service aimed at repairing Qatar’s broken image and quietening the most vocal critics?
Nicholas McGeehan, human rights advocate, echoes these concerns, saying that Qatar’s promises of labour reform should be treated with ‘very cautious optimism,’ while Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s deputy director of global issues saying ‘Promising reform is not actually the same as delivering it.’
Regardless of whether Qatar actually does take steps to improve the lives of its migrant workers, Qatar still has the blood of thousands on its hands, and unfortunately these new laws will do nothing to bring back those that have perished while working to support their families.
Slavery in Qatar – how you can help
It is difficult to know how exactly to help with this issue. Of course, boycotting the Qatar World Cup 2022 is one option (and slavery in Qatar is not the only Qatar World Cup controversy by a long shot) but of course, if a handful of people reading this post decide to boycott the World Cup then it isn’t exactly going to achieve a whole lot in terms of helping migrant workers in Qatar.
In my opinion, the best thing that you can do is to donate to either Human Rights Watch or Migrant Rights. You can also share this article and articles like this one to help get the word out there and make people more aware of this issue.
If you made it this far then thank you so much for caring about this issue! Some other posts which you might find interesting are listed below:
Types of Human Trafficking in the UK (and Spotting the Signs).
Human Trafficking in Vietnamese Nail Salons.
Modern Day Slavery in Dubai and How it Affects You.
A City Built by Slaves – The Plight of Construction Workers in Dubai.
Is Your £5 Car Wash Contributing to Modern Slavery?