They’re impossible to miss. On a drive around Qatar, at every turn, it seems, a new football stadium rises out of the desert — each design offering a futuristic take on its traditional culture.
One of them, located in an area that was long known for pearl diving and fishing, is shaped like a dhow boat, a traditional vessel that ply Gulf waters.
Another is designed like a woven hat known as a “gahfiya,” mostly worn by men in Gulf countries as a base for their traditional white headscarves. Each stadium design represents Qatar’s history and culture and are testaments to its future ambitions on the world stage.
But each has been built with the help of an army of workers coming from abroad, many of whom hail from South Asia and parts of Africa. And the small Gulf country has gone on a media offensive following several reports alleging egregious mistreatment and abuse.
Since Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010, more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country, The Guardian reported in February.
Most of the workers, the authors alleged, were involved in low-wage, dangerous labor, often done in extreme heat.
The Guardian report did not definitively link all 6,500 deaths to World Cup infrastructure projects. Though one expert told the British paper it was “likely many workers who have died were employed” on those projects.
Qatar World Cup officials estimate a very different death toll, saying there have been just three work-related deaths on stadiums and 35 non-work-related deaths.
Hassan Al Thawadi — the man in charge of leading the event’s preparations — told WEBICNEWS’s Becky Anderson that The Guardian’s 6,500 figure was “inherently misleading” and lacking context.
“When a sensational headline comes out such as that, I understand people’s concerns,” he said. “As human beings, we all have a responsibility to be concerned about such matters, I’m fully on board with that. But I think it’s also very important to find out the facts on the ground.”
He said some of the people were doctors and teachers that died from either natural causes or illnesses, not from working on World Cup stadiums.
The authors of The Guardian report, however, argued that there’s little medical explanation for the causes of these deaths which is largely due to a lack of transparency from Qatar’s government.
As Qatar does not routinely perform autopsies, it is hard to verify.
In a statement to WEBICNEWS, FIFA — the body that organizes every World Cup — concurred with Qatar’s death toll.
“FIFA and the Qatari Supreme Committee (SC) have always maintained transparency around these fatalities,” it said, adding that the Supreme Committee investigates every work-related incident.
“With the very stringent health and safety measures on site enforced by the SC, the frequency of accidents on FIFA World Cup construction sites has been low when compared to other major construction projects around the world.”
It added, though that, “it remains a challenge to fully safeguard workers from health hazards that may not be directly associated with their work on site.”
When asked whether he believes Qatari authorities need to do more to investigate workers’ deaths, Al Thawadi told WEBICNEWS the government is “in discussions to review its overall mortality rates.”
“I think the State of Qatar has continuously showcased its commitment to transparency,” he said. “The simple fact that human rights organizations can come over here, perform their research and issue their reports from the State of Qatar, I think is a testimony towards our commitment.”
Amnesty International confirmed this in a statement to WEBICNEWS, saying, “Unlike most Gulf countries, Qatar allows access to Amnesty International to visit the country and meet officials to raise our concerns.” However, the organization has not launched a report from inside the country since 2013.
It added, “It is not always easy to gain access to migrant workers and work sites. Many of them fear facing repercussions for talking to international organizations.”