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I am a member of International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH); I was at the 31st ICOH Congress 2015 held May 31 – June 5, 2015 in Seoul South Korea. I sat in ICOH General Assembly on 5th June 2015 when I colleague raised a question on the increasing rate of migrant workers death in Qatar because of the quest to impress the world in 2022 FIFA World cup. I tried to listen to the response of ICOH and its position on this issue but I got worried the more I listened. In my mind, I concluded this as a case no one can look into while the death toll even increases in the days and years ahead. This prompted me to look for reports on this issue and the level of the work done so far in this direction. I became more worried the more lines I read.

Amongst all the reports, I asked myself where is ILO? where in WHO? and where are the Human Right Lawyers? I felt a bit of Amnesty International’s report and I was wondering why everyone is quiet over these sad occurrences, we watch healthy young men slaughtered at work in an attempt to earn a legitimate means of livelihood and the whole world is quiet? If the right to safe and healthy work place is a human right, then we have all failed these murdered migrant workers by such a collective global silence. No life should be lost because the world wants to watch football matches, the football pitches are all stained with innocent migrant workers blood, when we all seat down on those stadia upon completion what do we really see? You may see beautiful matches played but most of us will not see those matches but stains of blood because that is what the stadia in Qatar and the adjoining structures will remind us of.

I got sad when I read the report that after five years of securing the bid to host the World Cup, Qatar’s government is just issuing a statement that significant progress was being made to improve lives and labour conditions of guest workers in Qatar. Who is going to speak for these workers who have got no voice because they have been banned from union representation, who is going to speak for them when the home government in Nepal has issued a careless statement that the migrant workers suffer stroke because they are adjusting to air conditioner system. The government of Nepal’s interest and concern is only the remittance repatriated home by these people, this forms almost 30%of Nepal’s GDP. Is this enough for any responsible government to keep silent and what her people die in their workplaces? “Your life becomes wrecked when those who would have spoken in your defence turn their back against you to share Champaign with your adversary”. This is sad!

Qatar was once one of the poorest Gulf States, now one of the richest countries in the region as a result of the large exploitation of large oil and gas fields since the 1940s. It has more than 15% of world’s proven gas reserve. It got its independence 1971, has the world’s richest country per capita and ruled since mid-19th century by the Al Thani’s family.

Qatar has also been identified as a middle power due to the ways it has projected itself to the world and Qatar is also an influential player in the Arab world.

Qatar has a population of 1.8 million people according to 2013 report which also states Qatari citizens are only 280,000 of the population while expatriates are 1.5 million people.  This makes Qatari nationals merely 13% of the country’s population. According to 2013 report, Qatar has 545,000 Indians, 341,000 Nepalese, 185,000 Filipinos, 137,000 Bangladeshis, 100,000 Sri Lankans, 90,000 Pakistanis and many other nationals. This is the biggest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world.

Qatar will be the first Arab country to host the FIFA World Cup having won the controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup and this marks the beginning of man slaughter in workplaces in Qatar. Though there are talks that the small but wealthy Gulf state would be stripped of the competition, amid allegations of corruption at world football’s governing body FIFA. “Qatar 2022 is now being investigated; FBI and Swiss are counting the alleged cost of bribes while Nepal is counting the actual cost of lives”. But will this justify or make up for the blood of innocent and harmless migrant workers who are slayed or killed every other day (an average of one death per day) in Qatar workplaces and yet the world seems to pay deaf ears? We allow evil to prevail when the good ones who ought to speak keep a mum silence and that is currently the case in Qatar. The government of Nepal leads the position of utmost silence that is interpreted to mean “you cannot bite the finger that feeds you”. Really sad!

Recently, a story of a Nepalese named Shiva Tamanga who was murdered in Qatar by a Bulldozer in construction site on 19th April, 2015 as reported by John Irvine, a Senior Special Correspondence at ITV. Shiva only left Nepal to work in Qatar six months before his workplace death leaving behind his pregnant wife; he was brought back to Kathmandu international airport in a coffin after six months. At monks chanted at his cremation, his mother wailed and his widow passed out. This is the story of Shiva Tamanga, one man down but who is next as Qatar’s construction continues.

A number of hardships are suffered daily by migrant workers I Qatar. According to ITV correspondence, one of the Nepalese migrant workers he interviewed anonymously complained about poor treatment and rotten food leading to food poisoning resulting in deaths of three to four workers in his company in Doha each month. He also complained he was having his holiday for the first time in three years because his employer has always refused to release him. He was eventually allowed to go home on this holiday on the condition that he accompanies a body (dead worker) in this journey.

If the world indeed gathers in 2022 to either play or watch world cup matches played in Qatar that will be seen as a global approval and justification for the gruesome deaths of those migrant workers who fall victims to poor labour legislation that has fanned into flame uncontrollable unsafe workplaces scattered all over Qatar. The speed at which construction of roads, stadia, new hotels and other facilities is currently going on at the expense of the huge population of migrant workers currently working in Qatar, needs to be brought to global pedestal for objective balancing. This is wicked, shrewd, rude, inhuman, and unacceptable and must be collectively criticised in one voice. The blood cries of innocent workers killed cries so loud yet everyone pretends not to hear.

According to a recent graphics form Washington Post which suggested that as many as 1,200 migrant workers have died in Qatar since 2010, compared to handfuls of deaths before other recent global sporting events. A number of media outlets worldwide – including Channel 4 News repeated that figure of 1,200 deaths while the Qatar government has responded disclaiming those figures and tag them as untrue. These 1,200 deaths are claimed to be nationals of India and Nepal alone according to figures released by local embassies of both countries.

If indeed these figures are untrue, it is the responsibility of the government of Qatar to tell us the truth supported with evidence.

You will agree with me that most of these deaths are not reported and even deaths that are occupational risk induced could be also wrongly classified. The reason is not far from the poor Labour Legislation in Qatar. In any event, the source of the “1,200 dead” figure  which originates in the 2013 report by the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) is simply the total deaths among the Indian and Nepalese migrant population, not deaths from accident alone or just deaths among construction workers.

So how many people have died while working specifically on World Cup 2022 projects? We do not know but this government of Qatar says it is ZERO! The question is how true is this claim by the government?

There are many numbers of quotes out there like the one in this report from German newspaper Die Welt: “some time ago, Hamid said a worker fell to his death from the roof of a building on an adjacent construction site. In November, 2014 a man had been burnt to death in a fire incidence”.

But this this is hearsay, the kind of evidence that would not stand up in a British court, and it is not clear whether the “adjacent construction site” had anything to do with the World Cup. But Amnesty International says it has “no reason to doubt” the claims that no lives have been lost on World Cup construction sites, although it argues that we need a broader definition of World Cup-related building work, saying: “Most major construction projects in Qatar are related to the World Cup”.

The law firm DLA Piper which was contracted by the government of Qatar to carry out an independent review of Qatar’s labour laws, found evidence of at least 22 worker-related deaths among Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi migrants in 2013 alone. That is out of the 600 total deaths among migrant workers from these three countries in that year.

Now we begin to wonder where the claims came from by the government of Qatar that no worker has died working in Qatar on the World Cup projects, we are all worried and hold the opinion that Qatar government has a lot to hide in this regard. The earlier they tell the world the truth on this matter, the faster help comes their way.

How dangerous is working in Qatar?

The Qatar government’s press release gives the impression that there are no health risks at all attached to being a foreign worker in Qatar but quite the opposite is the fact. There are more than 1 million migrant workers in Qatar, the Global Burden of Disease published in “The Lancet” in 2012 states that more than 400 deaths might be expected annually from cardiovascular disease alone among Qatar’s migrant population.

Figure sourced separately by the Guardian from Nepalese authorities suggests the total deaths during that period could be as high as 188. In 2013, the figure from January to mid-November was 168.

“We Know that people who work long hours in high temperature are highly vulnerable to fatal heat stroke, so obviously these figures continue to cause alarm”, said Nicholas McGeehan, the Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

It is Qatar’s responsibility to determine if deaths are related to living and working conditions, but Qatar flatly rejected a DLA Piper recommendation to launch an immediate investigation into these deaths last year. It has been quoted in some quarters that the spate of the current heart attacks among migrant workers in Qatar is as a result of dehydration suffered by workers because they are not provided enough water to drink in their workplaces.

The Embassy of Nepal said 191 Nepalese workers died in 2013, adding that “most deaths were a result of cardiac arrest”, according to DLA Piper. A former Nepali Ambassador to Doha has put a more precise figure on the proportion of migrant worker death attributable to “sudden heart attack at 55%”.

Data on causes of death in Qatar is weak, the report adds, as autopsies and post mortem on people who die sudden and unexpected deaths are forbidden by Qatari law unless a crime is suspected. As things stand, there are few reliable statistics on workplace accidents and deaths in Qatar.

Qatar’s current health strategy document states: “Qatar’s vast population of male labourers, primarily in the construction industry, has limited access to healthcare services and also operates in hazardous environments”.

Workplace injuries are the third highest causes of accidental deaths in Qatar. And yet, Qatar does not have national occupational health standards or guidelines and there is limited data on workplace-related fatalities.

It becomes really difficult when even media professionals are not allowed to report on what’s going on in this country. Qatar gets a red rating from Reporters Without Borders, indicating a “difficult situation” for press freedom. Last month a BBC team was arrested and interrogated while trying to talk to migrant workers on fatalities and work conditions in the country.

I strongly believe this is an unhealthy practice that must be collectively condemned in strong words. You cannot expose workers to harsh and unsafe work conditions and want to shield this in secrecy. No, it does not work that way.

ITV News managed to film Nepalese workers in the country, as well as the families of dead migrant been flown back to Nepal in coffins. Nepal’s Minister for labour, Tek Bahadur Gurung, blamed the heart attacks on a problem of “orientation”, saying workers were dying after suddenly turning on the air conditioning in their living quarters.

The suggestion was that the Nepalese government would be reluctant to criticise foreign “partners” like Qatar given the amount of money sent back by Nepalese working abroad. These remittances made up 29 per cent of Nepal’s entire GDP in 2013/14. What a shame and human sacrifice by a country just to earn GDP at the expense of slayed citizens working abroad. It is not normal!   

Sadly, we have seen that Nepalese migrant workers are faced with absolute betrayal from even the government of their home country. When truth is slaughtered on the altar of gains, this is always the result. The question is, “who now fights for the right of these helpless sets of people when those who are supposed to negotiate their rights have turned their faces against their collective hurts”. When a government issues a statement as this, it is taken as an approval of injustice and a continuation in status quo.

No matter the amount of remittances contributed to the GDP of Nepal, no amount of money is worth the slaughtering of healthy men who went to work in Qatar in quest of legitimate means of survival. The statement credited to Nepal’s Labour Minister should be used to make a case against him for aiding and abetting the increasing death of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar. This is such a sorry state which I think Amnesty International should look into.

There are a number of other claims ranging from:

  • Migrant workers reduced to the status of slaves by the “Kafala” sponsorship system which means employers can confiscate passports of migrant workers and withdraw exit visas, effectively restricting them in Qatar.
  • Workers are denied trade union representation
  • Workers are often not paid in full or on time
  • Workers are exploited by recruiters who charge heavy fees from the migrant workers
  • They are forced to live in cramped accommodation of about 18 persons per room

This may only be a partial list, a number of issues possibly exist which are not accessible to the media because of the system that operates in Qatar.

The major report commissioned by Qatar into its treatment of migrant workers produced more than 60 suggested reforms and a confirmation that hundreds of migrants have died and many of them from unexplained sudden illnesses over the past two years, at a rate of more than one death a day. The report by international law firm DLA Piper calls for changes in the much criticized “kafala” system that ties workers to their employers.

Though the artists’ impressions of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup venues, like the Qatar Foundation Stadium, are impressive – but criticism over treatment of migrant workers has dogged the development.

It has been published in a number of papers that there has never been such high worker mortality recorded in the history of nations’ preparations to host the World Cup or any international sports tournament, from Beijing Olympics to Brazil World Cup. A number of people have though argued from different quarters that the deaths in Qatar has nothing to do with the World Cup because construction has been on-going in Qatar even without the World Cup host plan. But the Director of campaign of the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), Tim Noonan says “although the World Cup stadium was only started last year, subways, hotels, and even an entire city are currently being built, not to mention an airport, numerous roads, a new sewage system in central Doha and 20 skyscrapers. “It needs to be remembered that the infrastructure program in Qatar is entirely built around the delivery date of the World Cup in Qatar”. Tim also said about 900 foreign workers will die per year in Qatar in the years leading to the tournament.

I took time to do this report using information that have been published on the ills in Qatar hoping it will create clarity on these health and safety concerns centred around the migrant workers in that country. We cannot all pretend to keep quiet over these issues while every day that passes, a migrant worker dies. They must not be our relatives before we show honest concerns, we must first see ourselves as “We” (fellow global citizens) before we see ourselves as “I”. “We are all we have”, when we close our eyes to the death of innocent migrant workers, we reduce our collective strength. “The weak needs the strong to stand for him and the strong needs the weak to show the might of his strength”, we all may not have voice that can be far heard but he who has lost his voice needs a brother to speak for him.

The whole world and global political powers may pretend not to know about the goings-on in Qatar, but we all need to remember that we are accountable to our own conscience. As popularly put by the Nigerian Guardian newspapers “Conscience is an open wound, only truth can heal it”.  I will rather be caught speaking or fighting for a course than take the non-partisan position for fear of being tagged. What is wrong is wrong, no matter the balances where they are weighed and it is our responsibility to speak against them in clear terms.

It will make a global sense, if we all rise and speak against this ill in Qatar and migrant workers get saved than getting excited watching matches in Qatar stadia stained by the blood innocent migrant workers.

I am only an Occupational Health and Safety practitioner in Nigeria and these are my concerns.

I can be reached at: ehi@ohsm.com.ng



www.itv.com : John Irvine





About the author

Ehi Iden editor