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FIFA WC: Another Story Unravels

The place, with the nickname Valley of Death, is currently hosting the greatest show on Earth… the FIFA World Cup. The Global Media have commented like this on the ongoing FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, as quite a number of migrant workers died in the West Asian nation ahead of the largest single sporting event. Reports suggest that at least 6,500 migrant workers lost their lives in Qatar during various construction works, including seven stadia, in 2010-20… among them, 2,711 were Indians, 1,641 were citizens of Nepal, 1,018 were from Bangladesh, and 557 were from Sri Lanka. According to the information received from the Embassy of Pakistan in Doha, nearly 824 Pakistani workers died during that period of time. There is no information about workers from countries, like the Philippines and Kenya. Amnesty International (AI) has claimed that nearly 15,021 migrant workers died on duty in the small country, situated on the north-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Global Community has noticed various inconsistencies in organising the football World Cup in Qatar. Earlier, the FIFA agreed to organise the World Cup in winter, keeping in mind the condition of the host nation in summer. The average temperature in Qatar usually hovers around 50 degrees Celsius in summer. However, the construction of infrastructure was underway in summer. The death toll is just an indication of the extent of extreme heatwave and lack of proper protection at workplaces that claimed the lives of the migrant workers. Ahead of the World Cup that began on November 20 (2022), the Government of Qatar reportedly asked the workers, living in the areas through which fans, journalists, and officials from all over the world would enter stadia, to vacate those premises with a two-hour notice.

The number of migrant workers in Qatar is nearly 3.8 million, or 85% of its total population. Thousands of expatriate Indian workers are involved in the construction and maintenance works of oil and gas pipelines, and associated infrastructure projects in different West Asian countries, including Qatar. Unfortunately, the Indian Embassies in this region do not have enough information about those workers. It may be noted that the Second National Labour Commission Report (2002) had clearly stated that the Indian Embassies should have a separate cell to deal with migrant workers, and appoint full-time officials. However, the Government of India ignored the advice.

Labour unions are banned in Qatar. There are also no benefits, like health protection and life or accident insurance, for migrant workers. Until 2016, there was a system, called al-Kafāla, which prohibited migrant workers from leaving the country without the approval of their employers. In other words, the Kafāla system (or sponsorship system) used to monitor migrant workers, working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states and a few neighbouring countries, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It required all migrant workers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who was responsible for their visa and legal status. Various Human Rights organisations strongly criticised this practice for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers used to take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions. Although new laws are in place to protect migrant workers, they are still not effective.

Incidentally, the condition of workers in India is not much better, either. It may be noted that five workers had died when a wall collapsed at the Games Village in New Delhi during the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Death of construction workers is a common phenomenon in India. At least 30 industrial accidents have claimed the lives of nearly 75 workers in the last two years (during the COVID-19 Pandemic period alone). In its 2019 report, the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi (IIT-Delhi) mentioned that about 48,000 workers die in accidents in India every year, and 70% of them are construction workers. As per an International Labour Organisation (ILO) Report, 165 out of every 1,000 construction workers receive injuries in India everyday. The ILO believes that the indifference of the owners and authorities regarding the safety of their workers is the main reason for this.

In India, most people are involved in the construction sector, after agriculture. According to the National Sample Survey (NSS) Report (2016-17), the number of people working in the construction sector is around 75 million. These unorganised workers do not enjoy the basic facilities, like protection at the workplace. There is no safety equipment or insurance scheme for them. Where a large force of unemployed people is ready to sell their labour at a cheap price, the concerned authorities hardly bother about safety measures for workers. In such a scenario, the death toll has become only a number. While 60% of the Indian construction workers perish after falling down, 25% become the victim of roof or wall collapse, and 15% die from electrocution.

Instead of being overwhelmed by the glitz of the football carnival, the Western media have raised serious questions about workers’ protection in Qatar. However, the Indian media are not in a position to raise such questions because of the working condition of labourers at home.

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