Safety, Soccer, and the Marginalization of Migrant and Minority Workers

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This post has been revisited lately due to the news of 13 migrant workers dying in a fire at a labor camp in Qatar. The labor camp is in place for a hotel project in support of the 2022 World Cup. Here’s an article from 2013 on labor camps that includes employee interviews and shocking images. At least 10 other workers were injured in the fire. Since I wrote this post a year ago, really nothing in Qatar has changed, except that the worker death toll continues to rise. The following post is as it appeared in June 2015. 

Marginalization is the act of relegating or confining a group of people into a lower or outer limit. Marginalization occurs in society in many different forms, but today I’m going to relate it to safety.

As the enormous construction projects have rolled on in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 World Cup of soccer, a story has been kept under the international radar, known only by safety professionals, journalists, and the workers who live in the conditions each day. Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar were dying at a rate of one person every two days in 2014 according to an investigation by Guardian last year. This figure did not include deaths of Indian, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi workers, and it is feared that if all were included, the toll would be more than one each day. FIFA and Qatar authorities have cited the fact that many of the deaths were heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrest that did not occur specifically on the jobsite, and only 34 deaths in 2014 were recorded as workplace accidents. Heat stroke is a common root cause in these deaths due to extremely high temperatures in Qatar.

A general view taken on November 13, 2014 shows Khalifa Stadium in Doha which is undergoing complete renovation in preparation to host some of the matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Football's world governing body FIFA has cleared Qatar and Russia of corruption and ruled out a re-vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments despite widespread allegations of wrongdoing. AFP PHOTO/STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view taken on November 13, 2014 shows Khalifa Stadium in Doha which is undergoing complete renovation in preparation to host some of the matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Football’s world governing body FIFA has cleared Qatar and Russia of corruption and ruled out a re-vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments despite widespread allegations of wrongdoing. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Guardian report noted that there were over 400,000 Nepalese workers in Qatar among 1.4 million migrant workers employed on various construction projects. With numbers like this, it is difficult to know which deaths are related to the World Cup. One could assume that of course stadium construction is directly related, and construction of a new hotel or other hospitality buildings are indirectly related.

When I first heard of the staggering death toll almost two years ago, I thought FIFA should be playing a larger role. It appears now with the larger FIFA scandal and news that their president is stepping down, that the corruption and related marginalization of workers in Qatar is part of a larger problem within the organization.

In comparison to other large sporting events that have spurred construction projects in the host countries, only the Sochi Olympics of 2014 even comes close to the huge toll of the Qatar World Cup with 60 deaths. Next is the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in which 10 workers died at related worksites. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing saw 6 deaths in the construction leading up to the games and London and Vancouver Olympics in 2012 and 2010 respectively each had one worker death.

It is clear that something needs to be done and the owner of the project, FIFA, must take a leadership role. The Qatar World Cup of 2022, will remain tainted due to the recent scandal and these worker deaths. If the current trends continue, there could be over 4,000 worker deaths by the time the World Cup is held in 2022! This is simply unacceptable. The kafala system that governs migrant workers in Qatar leaves workers open to horrible conditions, exploitations, and abuse with no recourse against their employer.

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Qatar has been called a “country without a conscience,” which may explain, but not justify, the working conditions the migrant workers are exposed to. This marginalization of the migrant workers is on a massive scale and will take years to undo.

In the United States, I’ve seen marginalization of workers on a smaller scale. Often workers in the agricultural industry are treated as disposable resources where only death tolls spur a change in regulations to ensure healthier and safer conditions for the workers. In some trades, certain minority groups are the majority. Think about Southern California and other border areas where the laborers are mostly Spanish speaking. If your company works in those areas, you must have a plan in place to ensure ALL workers understand safety directions that will help them prevent injury and death. You cannot turn away and say “learn English.” Many of your workers who speak a language other than English may be interested in learning English, and as a company, you should foster that in any way you can as it promotes an overall culture of worker safety.

As a safety professional, I have prided myself on going where others will not go and standing side by side with the workers who I am responsible for protecting. Think about the areas of your fabrication shop that no one from management goes, the work on the construction site that is 20+ feet underground or 20+ feet in the air, the work that no one at your retail store wants to do – this is where you will find those marginalized populations and it is your duty to protect them. You must dig into all areas of your company’s operations to ensure complete worker safety. This is how you gain credibility, respect, and ultimately the results you are seeking.

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