Migrant workers employed at World Cup stadiums were secretly evacuated from the construction sites ahead of Fifa inspections, new research by human-rights investigators has found.
Construction firm bosses sounded fire alarms to ensure labourers left the premises and were unable to complain about their treatment to Fifa officials, the report by Equidem Research and Consulting said.
The report also reported that two workers died following incidents at the stadium hosting the final – including one as recently as last year – and that human-rights abuses were committed at all eight of the tournament’s stadiums.
These acts included physical punishments if workers were perceived to be underperforming, sackings when they complained about their treatment and being forced to work during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the World Cup organising body, insisted the research was “completely unbalanced”, unsubstantiated and represented a “one-sided narrative”.
However, Nick McGeechan, founding director of FairSquare and a leading advocate on migrant workers” rights, said:
“The research tends to confirm suspicions that the Supreme Committee hasn’t always been in full control of worker welfare on these projects. The Supreme Committee have responsibility over what’s happening on their site but in a very badly regulated construction market.
“I don’t think it necessarily points to bad intent on behalf of the Supreme Committee. But is very difficult to insulate yourself from the worst elements of this labour system, even on really well-run projects. Irrespective of how good your intentions are, it’s very hard to control the workers at the end of the supply chain.”
Qatar has long been criticised for the treatment of its migrant worker population and, in 2017, agreed to allow international trade unions to carry out joint-inspections with local officials of stadium sites. However, interviewees told Equidem that at least some of the inspections were effectively redundant because the labourers were denied the opportunity to speak to the inspectors.
A Nepalese migrant employed at Lusail Stadium, the venue for the final, said: “The company rang the fire alarm on purpose. When people heard this alarm, everyone came out. These fire drills were given regularly so people would gather in prescribed open spaces. After that, managers would bring out the buses and take us away.”
It turns out that the fire drills were cover-ups.
The Nepalese explains, “At first people believed those fire alarms. Everyone used to come out whenever the alarm rang. After this happened about two or three times, people stopped coming out. Workers started to hide to get a chance to complain to the Fifa group. Then the company started checking if anyone was still on site. If anyone was caught hiding, they were either sent back home or had their salary deducted.”
An Indian worker, who was employed on the stone cutting section at Al Bayt Stadium, described being moved to alternate sites or sent back to their camp on days when independent inspections were planned.
A report has found that two workers have died at the Lusail Stadium – including one as recently as last year – which is the venue where this year’s World Cup final will be held on December 18
“The investigation team came every month, but we could not meet the FIFA or Supreme Committee team because our workplace would be changed before they arrived. On the days where there was talk of inspection, we were sent elsewhere for duty or sent to the camp.
“A company staff stood at the stadium gate and when the Fifa or Supreme Committee people came, he would inform our supervisors. Company officials gave us strict instructions that we should not go to the Fifa team with any complaints. We were told that strict action would be taken against anyone who complains.”
The research was based on in-depth interviews with 60 migrants who were employed on World Cup venues. Equidem approached 982 workers in total, but most declined to have their experiences recorded in fear of retaliation.
Workers at Lusail said they witnessed two worker deaths. Equidem does not know the names of the deceased. One was a Bangladeshi labourer who is said to have died in March 2019. A colleague said: “It was only a few days after I started working there. He fell from level five to the ground floor.
“Hearing about such an incident, to know that a person died right before you, it made me nervous. I always checked my belt, its expiry date. I was cautious at my work.”
A Chinese national was reported to have died only last year at the same venue. Another worker said: “He fell from a height of around 25 metres. We heard people saying that none of his body parts [hands and feet] were moving at the time. He was taken to a hospital, and he died later. We heard that his belt unfastened, which led to the fall.”
Our own investigation found that the deaths of 2,823 foreigners of working age have disappeared unexplained since the Gulf nation was awarded the tournament in 2011. The Supreme Committee has recorded only three deaths at World Cup stadium sites and none at Lusail.
Equidem’s two-year investigation said labour and human rights violations had occurred at all of the World Cup venues.
A Kenyan worked who was based at Lusail said he was the victim of routine physical violence from his superiors. “Supervisors would hit us in front of other workers to pressure us to work faster and complete our work on time,” he said. “This physical abuse was never addressed. You could report but nothing would happen because the perpetrators were our supervisors.
Another worker employed on Lusail, Al Bayt Stadium and Khalifa International Stadium described being forced to work against his will during an extended coronavirus outbreak.
“During Covid-19, I was forced to work during the lockdown,” he said. “I tried to stay home but the company forced me to go work. The whole of Qatar locked down, and I was terrified of the coronavirus. I was sent to work on different sites, and I became corona-positive. I wasn’t given proper treatment. The company always kept a distance from me once I fell sick. I had fever and unbearable pain all over my body.”
The Supreme Committee were approached for comment. In response to Equidem, the Supreme Committee robustly denied the allegations laid out in the report. It said that the research “presents a completely unbalanced picture of the significant progress versus the inevitable challenges that remain.
“While we are supportive of the sharing of information which can help improve the work that we undertake in Qatar, the SC will not stand for the publication of false and unsubstantiated allegations, or the publication of a one-sided narrative seemingly calculated to damage the organisation’s reputation prior to the World Cup.”
Four of the construction companies who worked on World Cup venues responded to Equidem’s allegations. Each of them denied all the allegations relating to their projects on stadium sites.
- Daily Mail report