The construction of the Great Wall of China, initiated by the Emperor Qin Shihuang, was achieved at incredible human cost. Bodies sacrificed in the course of construction were buried near the wall as reminders of their labour in what became, in accordance with a Chinese expression, “The Longest Cemetery on Earth”. The legend of Meng Jiangnu tells a different tale, a widow who, on discovering that her husband had died and been interred in the fortifications, wept such tears as to wash the earthen ramparts away, thereby revealing his remains.
Where there is industry and construction in the name of image and security, death is the standard tariff. The more recently constructed Hoover Dam, to take another spectacular example, was built at the cost over 100 lives, with 96 identified as “industrial fatalities”. Others perished due to pneumonia occasioned by exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide. They remain the uncompensated, the forgotten.
While lacking that cadaverous gravitas, the football World Cup, like other enormous sporting occasions, generates its own cruelties, its own brutalities. Impressions by the host state have to be made. Slums have to be cleared. Infrastructure has to be improved. The streets need sprucing. In the case of Qatar, already plagued by its grant of the 2022 football World Cup, the body count of its bloodied labour is rising, specifically over appalling working conditions. The ball must be kicked on time, after all.
Unions keeping an eye on the event are already claiming that as many as 4000 will die before the opening match. The International Trade Union Confederation is making a bold and unappetising prediction: 600 workers will die annually unless changes to labour conditions are forthcoming. Casualties are even greater – people rendered invalids by a proliferation of construction accidents.
The donors of blood in this case are mainly migrants, drawn from a huge army of some 1.2 million workers who are toiling for the egomania of Qatar’s sporting Meisterwerk. The labourers themselves hail from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India, huge markets of labour and potential misuse.
Investigations by the ITUC reveal that autopsies rarely take place of the victims. The standard response is simple: death from heart failure. Besides, there are always more where they came from. Such rates of mortality and cause may seem less surprising given the remarks of the now recalled Nepalese ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari, who called the country “an open jail”. The strong reaction came after revelations that 44 Nepalese had died during the summer. Indian authorities are also puzzled: some 82 workers lost their lives in the first half of this year alone. The embassy in Doha has been swamped with complaints.
Cramped accommodation is typical. The terrific levels of heat are proving lethal. Workers are bound to their place of labour by sponsors who confiscate their passports and withhold their salary till the contracts are discharged.
What seems to be at work in the Qatari labour system is the modern disposable economy – cheap labour, cheap values and, at the end of the line, silence and death. Workers have an in-built obsolescence and are infinitely replaceable. Assets do, after all, depreciate with use.
Secrecy is also maintained by contracts of employment that muzzle the workers and prevent any discussion about labour conditions. This fosters a clandestine state of employment, one fed to the grizzly industrial complex Qatar boasts so readily off. And much of it for the greed and gravity of football.
The ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow has argued that the government has simply been throwing good after bad, assuming that the problem can be solved by a bit of tinkering. “Labour inspection in Qatar has failed miserably, and the government’s announcement that would put new staff into a system that doesn’t work is futile” (Arabian Business, Oct 3).
James Lynch of Amnesty International, who has had his eye on Qatari non-compliance with safety regulations, argues that efforts on the part of the government should go “beyond looking solely at how the stadiums or training grounds will be built”. That would seem to be wishful thinking.
British sports minister Hugh Robertson has made the claim that it would be “a precondition of the delivery of every major sports event that the very highest of standards of health and safety are applied” (The Guardian, Oct 3). But the political platform is not necessarily the actual one. Football is business, and Qatar wants to do it better than the rest.
Not that FIFA, the world governing body of football, is that concerned. Politics and advertisement are the twin features of the organisation. Football tends to languish at the lower end, the bottom feeder to an empire almost papal in its power. What matters are the stadia, the facilities, the grotesque pleasure domes being developed with cheap and dangerously abused labour.
Besides, a statement on behalf of the Qatar 2022 organising committee sets out to reassure: “The health, safety, wellbeing and dignity of every worker that contributes to staging the 2022 FIFA World Cup is of the utmost importance to our committee and we are committed to ensuring that the event serves as a catalyst toward creating sustainable improvements to the lives of all workers in Qatar.” Exactly what the power doctors at FIFA ordered. Making stadia for football will actually, suggests the spin, improve the lot of all workers.
Should Qatar be allowed to continue on its sanguinary bursts of labour exploitation, it will be drawing upwards of 500 thousand more foreign workers. All to make sure that a ball is kicked on time.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party. Email: email@example.com