The terrible tragedy of the earthquake in Nepal has been swept off the front pages and news leads by the bribery scandal and arrests at FIFA. But they should be linked because it is the blood and suffering of many Nepalese workers that is a major cause of soccer now being seen as the ugly game.
Men from Nepal are among the 1.4 million-strong army of migrant workers in the tiny, but oil rich, Gulf state of Qatar that, in controversial circumstances, was awarded the right to stage the 2022 World Cup. These are the workers who are building the World Cup stadiums — and all too often dying and being injured in the process.
Over several years, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and a number of national trade union groups have protested about the “virtual slavery” and shocking working conditions in Qatar. To me this is best summed up by a set of horrifying statistics relating to the building and renovation of stadiums for international sporting events:
When Britain staged the Olympics in 2012, only one worker was killed, while two died building the 2010 World Cup stadiums in South Africa. These were both better records than those recorded by the summer Olympiad in Beijing in 2008 where six workers perished. However, this was ten times fewer than the 60 who died in Russia preparing venues for the Sochi winter Olympics last year. But in Qatar, so far, more than 1,200 migrants labourers have died. At this rate, some 4,000 will perish on the job by 2022.
This figure seems almost unbelievable until one becomes aware of the conditions under which these migrants work. Labouring for ten-hours a day in summer temperatures that can reach 45 degrees Celsius and more, severe heat stroke and dehydration are major causes of death.
Poor living and working conditions combined with often scant regard for safety measures, adds to the death toll. All these matters were raised, mainly by the labour movement, with FIFA.
The international football federation did belated acknowledge that temperatures in Qatar, especially in summer, were a problem. This awareness caused FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter to first moot moving the 2022 tournament to the slightly cooler winter months in the Gulf. But this had nothing to do with concerns about workers or working conditions; Blatter was worried about the effect on paying spectators and players.
German FIFA executive member, Theo Zwanziger, who first raised concerns about heat stroke affecting spectators, also opposed moving the tournament to the winter months. This because it would interfere with European soccer schedules.
And so the building, the dying and the maiming has gone on. After an extensive investigation, ITUC last year published a report, The Case Against Qatar. It makes heartrending reading. Anyone wishing to download the pdf version can do so here.
Here are classic examples of what the race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions can ultimately mean. Here too are examples of international labour broking that amounts to human trafficking, a situation to which not only Qatar, but several other governments seem to turn a blind eye.
Labour recruiting agencies working in countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and Nepal, promise good jobs and working conditions in Qatar in exchange for a recruitment fee. These fees, that are illegal in most countries, including Qatar, and are banned by International Labour Oragnisation convention 151, average $1,000 (R12,000) and are often more.
Poor families bankrupt themselves, borrow money and mortgage belongings to pay to send their brothers, sons and husbands to the Gulf. Once there, they are trapped in debt, their passports taken as security. All they can do is work — and hope that their wages will be paid.
And when the earthquake struck Nepal, Qatari employers refused to allow workers from the Himalayan nation to return home to seek, bury or mourn their families. This is what happens during economic crises, when desperate workers meet unscrupulous employers. And it happens everywhere; it is just the scale that is different.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. No inference should be made on whether these reflect the editorial position of GroundUp.