Qatar is reviewing migrant worker deaths, but big questions remain

In a recent interview with talk show host Piers Morgan, Hassan Al-Thawadi, the general secretary of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, casually let it slip that organizers estimated that 400 to 500 workers died as a result of working on World Cup-related projects .

It was a startling claim as it was the first time Qatar’s official estimates of the number of casualties from its World Cup have risen to the hundreds. The nonchalance with which Al-Thawadi allowed the number to pass was also astounding. It was not part of any official report or investigation. It indicated that it didn’t matter much.

Al-Thawadi filled it in with the correct sentences. “One death is too many, it’s as simple as that,” he said. But of course, one death wasn’t too much. Or 500 deaths wasn’t too many for this world championship, an exercise in soft power and pose. Working conditions were improving, Al-Thawadi claimed. It’s been 12 years since Qatar shocked the world and won the right to host a World Cup in stadiums that didn’t exist yet. They had more than a decade to bring working conditions down to a decent level. Yet here we are with regular stories of abuse and exploitation being brought to light by reporters every day of the World Cup.

At the heart of the plight, suffering and death of migrant workers is the infamous kafala system, which is widespread throughout the Gulf States. Kafala literally means “guardianship” in Arabic. It ties a migrant worker to a sponsor that “delivers untested power over migrant workers, enabling them to evade responsibility for labor and HR abuses, and leaving workers in debt and in constant fear of retaliation,” according to Human Rights Watch. Qatar claims that kafala has been abolished, but the reality on the ground suggests that the abolition is nothing more than reforms on paper.

Perhaps the most serious issue that Al-Thawadi’s testimony brought to the surface is the number itself. During most of the preparation for the World Cup, Qatar’s reported number of worker casualties was 37. If Al-Thawadi is to be believed, it is they have now increased to as much as 500. Or, in his words: “Between 400 and 500. I don’t have the exact number, that’s being discussed.”

“Judging by that quote, it appeared that Qatari high officials were still *deciding* how many deaths they would pick as opposed to, ahem, actual deaths,” British journalist Nick Harris wrote on Twitter.

It’s inconceivable that the Supreme Committee didn’t know workers were dying, given that Qatar has a hawkish grip on what immigrants can and cannot do in the Gulf state. Maybe Al-Thawadi’s new disclosure is a compromise number?

Several independent surveys and studies show that more than 6,000 people died working on Qatar’s infrastructure ahead of the World Cup. The magic tricks and illusions Qatar used to reduce that number to as few as possible are far more impressive than anything they showed during the World Cup.

A perfectly healthy worker who died building the stadium is written off as a natural death simply because nothing fell on him or he didn’t fall anywhere. The inhumane working conditions, the merciless heat or the long working hours are not mentioned. All of this has played a role in thousands of ‘natural’ worker deaths

If there’s anything worse than killing these people, it’s ending their existence. By not being honest about the World Cup-related worker deaths, Qatar is doing just that.

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