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How many workers died building the Qatar World Cup? Misinformation conceals the true ‘scandal’

In August 2018, Tej Narayan Tharu fell to his death while while working on a site at the Qatar World Cup. One moment, he was a 24-year-old with a family and a future. The next, he was a cremated statistic. In Itahari, Nepal, as flames engulfed his coffin, his wife wailed and collapsed in grief. In Qatar, though, he became a footnote to a broader controversy.

Throughout a yearslong debate over the human cost of the 2022 World Cup, FIFA and the Qatari organizing committee have maintained that Tharu is one of three migrant workers who’ve died building it.

Countless Westerners believe that he is one of thousands.

The Qatari number has been widely panned as “misinformation,” or at least disingenuous spin. Other ghastly numbers have spread like wildfire. They’ve underpinned all sorts of criticism and protests of the 2022 World Cup. Denmark, for example, will go to Qatar with jerseys that double as a demonstration against “a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives.”

That claim, however, also stems from misleading media reports and misinterpretations of them. The death counts you’ve probably seen are deceptive. And the debate over them distracts from what experts frame as the 2022 World Cup’s true sin.

“The information is there to be outraged about this issue,” says Nick McGeehan, a British investigator and worker rights advocate at FairSquare. But it isn’t a single number of deaths that bothers him most. It’s what he describes as the appalling conditions and ruinous exploitation that have plagued the entire Qatari construction process. And it’s that a majority of migrant worker deaths have gone unexplained.

“That,” McGeehan says, “is the scandal.”

Why are claims about ‘thousands of deaths’ deceptive?

The widely regurgitated line about thousands of deaths stems in part from misreadings of a 2021 Guardian article whose headline and deck were amended a week after publication, and whose central claim was this: “More than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago.” (The article did not state that those 6,500 were stadium workers, and later noted that there were 37 deaths "directly linked to construction of World Cup stadiums.")

None of that is disputed. In fact, according to Qatari government figures, over 17,000 migrants of all nationalities have died in Qatar since 2010.

What’s misunderstood is that, while some of those 17,000-plus helped build the World Cup, not all of them did. According to Qatari government statistics, less than half of the country’s expats work in construction; 68% are considered "unskilled" or "limited skill." The reported deaths cover Qatar’s entire migrant population of over 2 million. In a statement to Yahoo Sports, a Qatari government spokesperson argued that “fatality figures revealed in the past have often failed to look at the whole picture and been wildly misleading.” In an interview, Nasser Al Khater, the World Cup organizing committee’s CEO, called the Guardian’s framing “extremely unfair.”

Qatari authorities claim that the reported figures fall in line with expectations based on population-wide mortality rates. Experts have said that the math presented to justify that claim is overly simplistic — migrant workers are generally healthier than the average citizen. When asked to provide the full justification, a government spokesperson did not directly answer the question.

But the broader point is valid: Over a 10-year span, out of a population of 2 million, of course a lot of people are going to die. In the U.S., for example, out of a random sampling of people aged 25-44, you’d expect 3,280 of every 2 million to die in a single calendar year, based on 2019 government data. There is nothing inherently scandalous about thousands dying in Qatar over an entire decade.

A worker is seen inside the Lusail stadium which is under construction for the upcoming 2022 Fifa soccer World Cup during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, December 20, 2019.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
A worker is seen inside Qatar's Lusail Stadium, which will host the 2022 World Cup final and reportedly cost $767 million to build. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Why is Qatar’s claim of ‘three’ deaths misleading?

In May, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was presented with the misinformation that much of the West now believes. An NBC reporter asked him about “the thousands of families who’ve lost family members who died building these stadiums.” Infantino pushed back, and parroted the Qatari company line that is equally misleading.

“When it comes to the building of World Cup stadiums,” Infantino said, “it’s actually three persons who died. Three. Three is three too many, but it’s three.”

According to Qatari officials, three people have died in work-related accidents while actively building World Cup stadiums. But dozens more have died while employed at those stadium sites. And hundreds, possibly thousands have died while employed on other construction projects that technically aren’t under the World Cup umbrella, but might not be happening if Qatar didn’t need to build $200 billion worth of infrastructure to host the World Cup.

How did workers die?

What we don’t know is how, exactly, many of those migrants died. Over half of migrant worker deaths in Qatar have been attributed to “unknown causes,” or “natural causes” or “cardiovascular diseases” — explanations that experts find woefully insufficient.

The vagueness of those categorizations has left room for assumptions that inhumane working and living conditions have contributed to deaths. (Limited research supports those assumptions.) Among the risks that endanger workers in Qatar are extreme heat; unsanitary housing; lack of access to proper medical care; excessive hours; and systemic exploitation that contributes to stress.

We don’t know whether or how often those risks have taken lives, though, because, as Amnesty International and others have said, Qatar has failed to “adequately investigate and certify thousands of migrant workers’ deaths.” When asked why, a government spokesperson responded with a statement that did not answer the question.

There is no proof that the government has actively covered up the true causes of deaths. But to experts like McGeehan, Qatar’s unwillingness or inability to identify causes in the first place is “inextricably linked” to a broader disregard for the humanity of the millions of South Asians and Africans who’ve come to the Gulf emirate in the 21st century to transform Doha, its capital, into an international hub.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Preview - A look inside Qatar's Souq Waqif market - Souq Waqif market, Doha, Qatar - October 7, 2022. Picture taken October 7, 2022 Fan Zone construction workers are seen in Souq Waqif market REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Fan Zone construction workers are seen in Qatar's Souq Waqif market. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

Were Qatar's migrant workers in 'modern slavery'?

Whether or not a disproportionate number of healthy young men have died to enable the World Cup, many have suffered, especially in Qatar’s scorching summer heat, and especially under a system likened by many, including Infantino, to “modern slavery.”

Many have worked 12-hour days of physically demanding outdoor labor in temperatures that regularly top 100 degrees. They have, according to widespread media reports, lived in squalid, overcrowded labor camps on the outskirts of Doha, several-to-a-room, thousands of miles away from the spouses, parents, siblings and children for whom they were trying to provide. And often they couldn’t provide, because they took on debt to earn a few hundred dollars a month, and had no recourse when their employers refused to pay those dollars.

The world’s richest-per-capita country essentially built the 2022 World Cup by exploiting some of the poorest humans in some of the world’s poorest countries. The kafala system — the modern iteration of which stems from British colonialism — required those humans to sign away their rights to Qatari companies in order to obtain visas. The companies became their “sponsors,” and wielded tyrannical power over their lives. They confiscated passports, unilaterally rewrote contracts and often withheld wages. The workers, in many cases, had already paid multiples of their monthly salary in illicit “recruitment fees” to land their Qatari gig. They therefore went months without being able to send money back home — and, as a result, their families struggled to stay afloat.

But they were stuck. Qatari law didn’t allow them to leave the country, or even change jobs, without permission from their employer/sponsor. Some have protested or went on strike, but unionizing and demonstrating are illegal. Migrants are largely helpless. Rights organizations have described the experience as akin to forced labor.

Why did migrant laborers keep coming to Qatar if the system was so exploitative?

The workers kept on coming because even meager Qatari salaries — often in the range of $3,000-$4,000 per year — could be transformative back home. Some 80% of South Asians live on less than $5.50 per day. The average Nepali adult can earn multiples more abroad, even in low-wage jobs, than he or she could earn domestically.

It is not illogical, then, to frame Qatar’s employment of millions of migrants as a granting of opportunity, and of a pathway to a better life. Infantino essentially made this argument in May. “When you give work to somebody, even in hard conditions, you give them dignity, and pride,” he said. The plagues at the root of this discussion, extreme inequality and worldwide poverty, are not problems that FIFA or Qatar alone can solve.

They could help, though. The acute problem is that powerful people are taking advantage of powerless people. It’s that the life and money promised to Nepalis and Indians and hundreds of thousands of others never materialized. And although the direct perpetrators of the exploitation were often private companies contracted for construction projects, the Qatari government effectively authorized it.

Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail stadium which will be build for the upcoming 2022 Fifa soccer World Cup during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, December 20, 2019.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Qatar’s Ministry of Labor says it has paid $271 million in compensation in 2022 as part of a workers' support and insurance fund ahead of the 2022 World Cup. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Qatar abolished kafala. Did things change?

Under immense pressure from human rights groups, Western media and the International Labor Organization, Qatar agreed in 2019 to abolish kafala. Today, by law, in theory, migrant workers in Qatar can change jobs and leave the country without employer permission. The government has also established labor courts, raised the minimum wage and extended the midday hours during which outdoor work is prohibited in the summer — 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., when temperatures are hottest. It has introduced a wage protection system to oversee salary payments, and a workers' support and insurance fund for when they go unpaid, or for when a worker gets injured or dies “because of a work-related incident.” (The Qatari government spokesperson wrote that “approximately $271 million” has been paid from the fund this calendar year.)

As a result, there is near-consensus among experts that, for migrants across Qatar, conditions have improved. But to what extent?

“While there have been improvements,” Amnesty wrote last year, “weak implementation and enforcement of these reforms mean that progress has been slow and legal changes have not yet fully translated into better protection for all migrant workers.” Many workers still pay “abusive recruitment fees,” and report unpaid wages, and face long delays, injustice or retaliation if they go to labor courts. Employers still invent their own rules, and fraudulently charge employees with the pseudo-crime of “absconding” to prevent them from changing jobs. Housing has improved, but some living conditions are still appalling. And the minimum wage, which Infantino has trumpeted, is still $275 per month — less than 25% of what it is in the U.S., and less than 16% of what it is in Canada, Germany, the UK, France and Australia.

The Qatari government argues that progress is being made and systemic reform takes time. “We recognise that much remains to be done,” the spokesperson wrote. “We are committed to continue enforcing our labour laws with zero-tolerance and holding unscrupulous employers to account — including by increasing penalties for unpaid wages and strengthening the capacity of inspectors.”

According to rights groups and media reports, however, after a few months of promise, the Qatari business community began to resist reforms, and the government relented. It rarely holds a convoluted network of contractors and subcontractors accountable when they violate laws. “Progress on the ground has stagnated and old abusive practices have been resurfacing,” Amnesty wrote.

“The legal abolition of kafala,” McGeehan says, “[was] really impressive,” and reforms were “very ambitious.” But to truly dismantle an exploitative system that has been engrained for decades, he points out, “you can't just do it with the stroke of a pen.” You have to have a “plan for the progressive deconstruction of it,” and you have to “work on the attitudes that underpin the system.” You have to dismantle Qatar’s “de facto caste system based on national origin,” as the United Nations special rapporteur on racism called it, which “results in structural discrimination against non-citizens.”

And Qatar has done very little of that.

“The reality on the ground is that kafala is still there,” said May Romanos, a researcher at Amnesty, last winter.

Weren’t most powerful countries built on exploitation? Is all of this criticism hypocritical?

Many Western nations, including the United States, built their wealth and might on the back of slavery and other forms of servitude. So, the argument goes, how can it be that Americans look past America’s ills — which, by scale and degree, were worse than Qatar’s — but constantly condemn Qatar’s? How can they celebrate America’s wealth, and the privilege it has granted them, but criticize the Qatari elite who are trying to achieve similar power and privilege by similar means? Shouldn’t they reckon with the source of their own wealth, and confront the legacy of slavery, and undo the lasting effects of it first?

The answer, of course, is that yes, Americans should do all of that; and yes, they should do more to aid the billions of underprivileged people across the globe; but no, this whataboutism doesn’t excuse what Qatar has done and continues to do.

“We should carry great guilt and shame for all of those colonial abuses,” McGeehan, the British researcher, argued on a panel last year. “And, it doesn't give a free pass to Qatar to maintain a sort of feudal, medieval labor system that is entirely out of kilter with their economy, with their ability to put better systems [in place].”

Soccer Football - Workers lay the turf inside the Lusail Stadium, the venue for the 2022 Qatar World Cup final, Lusail, Qatar, November 18, 2021. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Workers lay the turf inside the Lusail Stadium, the venue for the 2022 Qatar World Cup final, Lusail, Qatar, Nov. 18, 2021. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

FIFA argues that the World Cup spurred change in Qatar. Is that true?

FIFA likes to boast that the World Cup spotlight illuminating Qatar has accelerated reform. Infantino has claimed that Qatar has made 20 years’ worth of progress in two or three, and “thanks to FIFA, thanks to football, we have been able to address the status of all the 1 and a half million workers.” The Supreme Committee — Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee — has said all along that it wanted to “ensure a lasting legacy of improved worker welfare,” and that “the 2022 FIFA World Cup is acting as a catalyst for improvements.”

“It has had a big impact on a lot of the legislation,” Al Khater, the Supreme Committee chief, told Yahoo Sports. “It's had a big impact of really pushing this agenda faster, and further, than it would have taken had we not hosted the World Cup.”

Most experts would acknowledge that there’s some validity in those statements. But they’d reiterate that the implementation of reform has been incomplete or ineffective. Many would also argue that FIFA merely nudged Qatar to mollify critics and save face. “FIFA has been complacent over the years in terms of really pushing for the reforms,” said Hiba Zayadin, a Human Rights Watch researcher, “and really making sure that the World Cup can have a legacy of … improving the situation on the ground for the people without whom this event would not be possible.”

The Supreme Committee has indeed gone above and beyond Qatari law to establish its own “Workers’ Welfare Standards,” ensuring that laborers at World Cup sites were offered better conditions and protections. There were cooled rest areas, hydration stations, full meals and more robust medical care. But the committee limited its purview to stadiums. The 95-plus percent of construction workers erecting other buildings and infrastructure never benefited because companies outside the committee’s purview were never incentivized to follow its lead.

So, although the World Cup has spurred some change, it’s unclear how thorough or permanent change will be. And that, the future, is what worries advocates. The government spokesperson wrote that “our efforts are only the start of a long journey of reforms that will extend long after the 2022 World Cup.” But the spotlight will soon fade, and pressure will abate. “And without pressure,” McGeehan says, “it's gonna be harder to really get these reforms effected.”

What could FIFA and World Cup teams do to right these wrongs?

McGeehan and others know how this story ends: The glitzy tournament built by exploited workers goes on, and soccer overshadows outrage, and FIFA profits. “I think everyone recognizes that the reform process may have gone as far as it's likely to go,” McGeehan said with a month until kickoff. So he and a collection of rights advocates have one last humble demand: They want FIFA and its members to compensate the families of workers who suffered to enable the show.

FIFA will glean billions of dollars from the 2022 World Cup. It will distribute $440 million in prize money to the 32 soccer federations participating. A coalition of human rights groups wants FIFA to distribute the same amount to workers who endured wage theft, or to the families of those who died. The Supreme Committee has said that it has paid five-figure sums to the families of three dozen workers who died while employed at official World Cup sites. But many families of those who died elsewhere haven’t been paid. The rights groups want that to change.

“It is already too late to erase the past suffering,” Amnesty wrote on its behalf. “But FIFA has important responsibilities that we must all make sure it lives up to. By awarding the World Cup to Qatar without conditions on improving protections for workers’ rights, FIFA has contributed to human rights abuses on a significant scale. … FIFA should work with Qatar and other partners to set up a programme to provide remedy for hundreds of thousands of workers involved in projects linked to the World Cup.” Doing so could put kids back in schools and food back on tables.

FIFA, though, has not indicated that it is willing to offer any compensation. At a mid-October news conference with World Cup organizers, FIFA head of media relations Bryan Swanson intercepted a question about the compensation of workers and said: “FIFA remains in positive ongoing dialogue with the International Labor Organization, the International Trade Union Confederation, and all relevant authorities in Qatar over initiatives that will benefit migrant workers in Qatar long after the final game of the World Cup. Further information on that will be provided in due course.”