The Western media has noted that nearly 450 Indians have died in Qatar over the past two years. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the European Parliament weighed in to castigate Qatar and even India for indifference. A German writer spoke of “forced labour” and “modern slavery”.
Amid this cacophony, explanations by Qatari and Indian officials were downplayed. The Indian Embassy in Doha said the deaths occurred largely due to natural causes, and the death figures had been used in an “inappropriate” and “distorted” manner.
In fact, embassy sources pointed out that of the 237 deaths of Indians in 2012, only 13 had occurred at construction sites, while of the 241 deaths in 2013, 14 were construction-related. The Qatari Human Rights Commission pointed out that the country had a mortality rate of 1.54 deaths per thousand, one of the lowest in the world, while that of Indians, numbering about half a million in the country, was a much lower 0.482 per thousand.
A little background would be useful: Qatar shocked the world in December 2010 when it was awarded the World Cup 2022, beating such formidable opponents as the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea. A Newsweek report described this as “the stunning, self-willed transformation of a micro-State”. This is the first time the cup will be played in West Asia.
The World Cup, for which construction is going on, is clearly at the heart of the ongoing vituperation against Qatar.
The Internet now has at least two sites, one seeking support for the petition “Stop Slave Labour for 2022 World Cup” while the other simply calls for the boycott of World Cup 2022.
The central issue now is whether football can be played in Qatar in summer: June-July is the mandated period for the game, the hottest months in the Gulf. If Qatar were to formally seek a shift to winter, it would provide an opportunity to review the vote and re-consider Australia or the US as alternative venues. Shifting the playing season will disrupt football schedules for three years, with serious implications for the game and media rights surrounding it.
Opponents of Qatar have, therefore, found in the exposure of workers’ abuses one more weapon to debunk its claims. FIFA is being pressured to take cognisance of the “human cost” of awarding the cup to Qatar. A number of institutions have been mobilised, and observations by them emblazoned across the global media. Thus, the International Trade Union Confederation has asserted: “More people could die building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums than will play in the World Cup.” A spokesman for the German football league has added: “The credibility of world football and its moral integrity are at stake.”
What of the workers themselves? India today has more than seven million workers in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). They are the largest expatriate community in every country, with over two million each in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and over half a million each in Qatar and Kuwait. They together remit $35 billion to India every year.
Given the involvement of such large numbers of people some abuses do take place mainly due to inadequate supervision at home and the failure to fulfil contractual obligations by employers. Still, there is none of the widespread abuse that seems to ignite the self-righteous fury of western institutions.
And, what of football? As in many areas of human endeavour, in sports too new players and venues have emerged and the West has just got to accommodate this reality.
Talmiz Ahmad is former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman
The views expressed by the author are personal