The decision to stage the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has drawn criticism for various reasons, including the country’s oppressive summer heat. But ESPN.com’s Jeff MacGregor has been writing about a more serious issue. According to The Guardian, 44 Nepalese construction workers died in Qatar between June 4th and August 8th. The International Trade Union has used construction death rates from the past two years to project that at least 4,000 migrant workers will die ahead of World Cup.
BL: Jeff, what is the situation in Qatar?
Qatar is a tiny country with a tiny population, 225,000 citizens, but they have more than 1.2 million guest workers, as they are referred to. They’re really migrant laborers who come in from the subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Nepal. What differentiates Qatar is some of the sponsorship’s employment laws there whereby these guest workers come in, the foreign laborers come in, but in order to do so they are sponsored by a local contractor who then takes their passport, warehouses them in a barracks, and sort of there after it is a sort of indentured servitude. A lot of these guys, and they’re almost all guys, go unpaid for months. The struggle that The Guardian noted was to get these guys enough drinking water.
BL: You have been corresponding with John Corsi, the vice-president for media and public relations for CH2M the US company that will be building the infrastructure necessary for the 2022 World Cup. Were you reassured that the historical exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar will be addressed by the company?
JM: I’m going to take this in a couple parts. First is that none of the work undertaken by CH2M Hill has yet begun.
I asked is there a moral way for your business to approach this. Is there a standard of ethical practice by which you can approach this? And he answered those questions very honestly and very forthrightly and directed me to a number of awards that this company had won for ethical practice and good worker treatment. I think the challenge for this American company is the challenge for every American company in the gulf: how do you change the culture of the country in which you yourself are a guest?
BL: This week a judge halted the construction of a stadium in Curitiba, Brazil meant for the 2014 World Cup because of concerns for worker safety. Does that halting of construction count as another blot on the reputation of FIFA, as the organization ultimately responsible for the World Cup?
JM: If the buck stops on Sepp Blatter’s desk, the president of FIFA, then yes of course. The fact is that Brazil is in charge of Brazil and Brazil is in charge of hiring the contractor to run these shows. I think in Brazil’s case what’s more interesting is the slum clearance. The really aggressive slum clearance that’s going on in places like Rio and Sao Paulo in advance of the World Cup and then they have the Olympics just a few years later. So Rio’s worry is not so much the state of construction workers as it is the collapse of the class system in Brazil as we know it.
BL: FIFA’s leadership is meeting this week. Have you any sense of how they are responding to the recently publicized situations both in Qatar and in Brazil?
JM: I have a picture in my head of a Thomas Nast cartoon where there are a number of overweight men in vests and stickpins sitting around a table and eating lobster and crabs. No I do not think that any of this has penetrated the bubble in which these plutocrats operate.