From the TUC

What’s the secret to preventing more deaths in Qatar? Us.

17 Feb 2014, By

If the 2022 Qatar World Cup organisers thought they would escape scrutiny by publishing revised Workers’ Safety Standards last week (and misleadingly claiming ILO backing), they were wrong.

The Observer reported on Sunday that 400 Nepalis had died in Qatar in the last year, and today Agence France Press reported that a freedom of information request to the Indian Embassy in Qatar had revealed more than 450 Indian migrants had died in the last two years.

On average about 20 Indian migrants died per month, peaking at 27 in August last year. There were 237 fatalities in 2012 and another 218 in 2013 up to December. There will have been more deaths in the third largest group of migrants, from the Philippines.

This staggering mortality rate has been contrasted with the 60 killed building the Sochi Winter Olympics, the two who died while constructing the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, one in Sydney in 2000, 14 in Greece in 2004 and 10 during the building of the Beijing Olympic stadiums. But the best record was undoubtedly the London2012 record of no fatalities at all, and an injury record well below the UK construction rate.

This has variously been put down to strong health and safety standards in the UK, and a lack of respect for the migrant workforce in Qatar. But another reason – often ignored by those covering the story – is the role of unions. Although the Observer’s editorial did acknowledge the role of ‘labour organisations’ in exposing the situation, neither the Observer story nor this morning’s New Statesman article mentioned unions or identified their role in solving the problems of migrant workers in Qatar.

Unions were centrally involved in the health and safety system at the London2012 Olympics, as they were in Sydney, where the next fewest fatalities occurred. And as studies have previously shown, union organised workplaces are safety than ones without. In Qatar, where raising safety concerns can leave you unemployed and trapped, workers need the protection and confidence of unions to speak out.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said of the AFP report:

“Qatar is choosing to prolong the system of modern slavery which is the root cause of the incredibly high death toll for workers. It doesn’t have to be that way but there is no political will for workers’ rights. Qatar is building its modern nation with the labour of migrant workers and deliberately chooses to maintain a system that treats these workers as less than human.

“Charters which are not enforceable and rely on company self-audits have been proven not to work. Without legal rights and free trade unions, workers will not be able to speak openly about safety concerns without fear and will continue to pay with their lives.”

As well as ending the modern slavery of the ‘kafala’ system, the right to form unions will be vital to preventing further deaths.