A Qatari official involved in the organisation of the country’s World Cup has put the number of worker deaths related to the tournament “between 400 and 500” for the first time, a number drastically higher than any other previously offered by Doha.
The comment by Hassan Al-Thawadi, the secretary general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, appeared to be an off-the-cuff remark during an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan.
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The comment threatened to renew criticism by human rights groups over the toll of hosting the Middle East’s first World Cup given the migrant workers who built more than $200 billion worth of stadiums, metro lines and infrastructure needed for the tournament.
The Supreme Committee and Qatar’s government did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press on Tuesday.
In the interview, portions of which Morgan posted online, the journalist asked Al-Thawadi: “What is the honest, realistic total do you think of migrant workers who died from — as a result of work they’re doing for the World Cup in totality?”
“The estimate is around 400, between 400 and 500,” Al-Thawadi responded. “I don’t have the exact number. That’s something that’s been discussed.”
But that figure hasn’t previously been discussed publicly by Qatari officials. Reports from the Supreme Committee dating from 2014-2021 include only the number of deaths of workers involved in building and refurbishing the stadiums now hosting the World Cup.
Those released figures put the total number of deaths at 40. They include 37 from what the Qataris describe as non-work incidents such as heart attacks and three from workplace incidents. One report also separately lists a worker death from COVID-19 amid the pandemic.
Al-Thawadi pointed to those figures when discussing work on stadiums in the interview, before offering the death toll of 400-500 for all the tournament infrastructure.
Since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar in 2010, the country has taken steps to overhaul the country’s employment practices. That includes eliminating its kafala employment system, which tied workers to their employers, who had say over whether they could leave their jobs or even the country.
Qatar has also adopted a minimum monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275) for workers and required food and housing allowances for employees not receiving those benefits directly from their employers. It has also updated its worker-safety rules to prevent deaths.
“One death is a death too many — plain and simple,” Al-Thawadi added in the interview.
Activists have called on Qatar to do more, particularly when it comes to ensuring workers receive their salaries on time and are protected from abusive employers. Al-Thawadi’s comment also renews questions on the veracity of both government and private business reporting on worker injuries and deaths across the Gulf Arab states, whose skyscrapers have been built by workers from South Asian nations such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Mustafa Qadri, the executive director of Equidem Research, a labour consultancy that has published reports on the toll of the construction on migrant workers, said he was surprised by Al-Thawadi’s remark.
“For him now to come and say there is hundreds, it’s shocking,” Qadri told The Associated Press. “They have no idea what’s going on.”