how many lives will be lost so that the Fifa World Cup™ can live up to its boast that it is the most successful festival of sport on the planet.
It’s not a rhetorical or playful question.
Qatar’s absolute monarchy, run by the fabulously rich and extraordinarily secretive Al Thani clan, no more keeps health and safety statistics than it allows free elections. The Trade Union Confederation has had to count the corpses the hard way. It found that 83 Indians have died so far this year. The Gulf statelet was also the graveyard for 119 Nepalese construction workers. With 202 migrants from other countries dying over the same nine months, Ms Burrow is able to say with confidence there is at least one death for every day of the year. The body count can only rise now that Qatar has announced that it will take on 500,000 more migrants, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, to build the stadiums, hotels and roads for 2022.
Not all the fatalities are on construction sites. The combination of back-breaking work, nonexistent legal protections, intense heat and labour camps without air conditioning allows death to come in many guises. To give you a taste of its variety, the friends of Chirari Mahato went online to describe how he would work from 6am to 7pm. He would return to a hot, unventilated room he shared with 12 others. Because he died in his sleep, rather than on site, his employers would not accept that they had worked him to death. There are millions of workers like him around the Gulf.
Nick cites Human Rights Watch, so let’s take a look at what they say about Qatar.
Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world, with only 225,000 citizens in a population of 1.7 million. Yet the country has some of the most restrictive sponsorship laws in the Persian Gulf region, leaving migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Forced labor and human trafficking remain serious problems.
Wow. That sounds like the parts of the slaveholding South where slaves vastly outnumbered non-slaves, and were brutalized accordingly. That in turn sounds like Sparta, where the helots were brutalized because they vastly outnumbered the ruling class. (HRW’s “yet” would make more sense as “therefore.”)
A major barrier to redressing labor abuses is the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer, or “sponsor.” Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employer’s consent, except in exceptional cases with permission from the Interior Ministry. If a worker leaves his or her sponsoring employer, even if fleeing abuse, the employer can report the worker as “absconding,” leading to detention and deportation. In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor, and some said sponsors denied them these visas. Workers widely reported that sponsors confiscated their passports, in violation of the Sponsorship Law.
So Qatar has a form of slavery.
Back to Nick.
Fifa strikes me as a decadent organisation in the political rather than literary meaning of the word. It is an institution whose behaviour contradicts all of its professed purposes. If it cared about football, it would not even have thought of staging a tournament in the Qatari summer. If it cared about footballers, it would take up the case of Belounis. And if it respected human life, it would say that the kafala system could not govern World Cup contracts.
I don’t know how much longer sports journalists can ignore the abuse Fifa tolerates. The World Cup is overturning all the cliches. People say that “football is a matter of life or death”, said Bill Shankly. “It’s more important than that.” Shankly was joking. Qatar and Fifa appear to mean it. Sport is “war minus the shooting”, said Orwell. There may not be any actual shooting in Qatar but workers will die nonetheless.
The quote that ought to haunt all who love football is CLR James’s paraphrase of Kipling: “What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?” James was writing about how sport was bound up in the Caribbean with colonialism, race and class. Anyone writing about the World Cup must also acknowledge that the beautiful game is now bound up with racial privilege, exploitation and the deaths of men, who should not be forgotten so readily.