A report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) found at least 50 workers lost their lives in Qatar in 2020, and more than 500 were severely injured, as the Gulf state comes under greater scrutiny for its treatment of migrants working on infrastructure projects for next year’s FIFA World Cup.
Entitled “One is too many”, the report said falls from height and road traffic accidents were the top causes of severe injuries, followed by falling objects on worksites. Around 37,600 workers suffered mild to moderate injuries, the ILO found.
Migrant workers make up 95% of Qatar’s workforce, with many working in its construction sector, globally recognised as a hazardous industry. Most workers affected were from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.
The UN agency said it is still not possible to present a categorical figure on the number of fatal occupational injuries in the country due to gaps in data collection.
The ILO worked with various Qatari institutions, including the ministry of public health, to produce the report, called for “better quality and more accurate data collection from Qatar, with more efforts to investigate injuries and fatalities that may be work-related but are not currently categorised as such”.
The report found a need to review “the approach taken to investigating deaths of seemingly healthy young workers from ‘natural causes’, to be able to determine whether they are in fact work-related and ensure more accurate identification of the cause.”
The ILO also raised concerns about whether a large number of workers’ fatalities are caused by “heat stress, and whether these are not being properly identified as work-related”.
The organisation noted that there is under-reporting of work-related deaths and injuries, particularly from small and medium-sized enterprises. This was largely found to be due to a lack of awareness, financial liability, and reputational risk Qatari firms can suffer.
“Despite the relatively severe penalties for failing to report occupational accidents, employers are rarely sanctioned for non-compliance with this legal requirement,” the report said.
The ILO makes a number of recommendations, including employers having the legal obligation to keep detailed records of occupational injuries and fatalities; making workers aware of the need to report injuries to supervisors and safety officers; and regular training for labour inspectors on the investigation of workplace accidents.
“The transparency shown in the review of the data collection and analysis processes has allowed us to put forward a set of concrete recommendations that can serve as a road map for action,” said Max Tuñón, head of the ILO project office in Qatar. “We must move with urgency, as behind each statistic there is a worker and their family.”
The Gulf state has made a series of labour reforms in recent times including the adoption of a non-discriminatory minimum wage for foreign workers, and ending its kafala system so migrant workers can change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission.
Nevertheless, Qatar has been the subject of several investigative reports following concerns over modern slavery and mistreatment of workers since the country was awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Guardian newspaper revealed in February that 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the tournament was awarded in 2010.
“No other country has come so far on labour reform in such a short amount of time, but we acknowledge that there is more work to be done,” Qatar’s labour ministry said in response to the ILO report.
“As Qatar has continuously stated, and as the ILO report confirms, figures reported in media on migrant worker fatalities have been wildly misleading. The government has been transparent about the health of our foreign population, and in reality, levels of mortality in Qatar are on par with wider demographics globally.
“Still, improving the health and well-being of foreign workers remains a top priority,” the ministry said, adding that Qatar labour reform is “a complex task” and Qatar would “continue to work constructively with a range of labour experts and practitioners – including the ILO, trade unions, and international NGOs – to build on the progress that has been made”.
Asked specifically about the ILO report by CNN, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said: “Steps have been made, steps will be made. I think we need also to recognise the positives if we want to encourage those who have embraced a way like Qatar is to continue in that way, recognise what has been done, look at the concrete facts and figures make the necessary criticisms as well, but always try to be constructive and to see what has been done and what can be done more in a positive sense.”
A report published earlier this month by Amnesty International found that, despite introducing important reforms, Qatar has still not delivered on its promise to end labour abuses and exploitation of its more than two million migrant workers.
In “Reality Check 2021”, Amnesty said the past year has seen an erosion of newly protected migrant workers’ rights in the country, “with old abusive practices resurfacing, reviving the worst elements of the kafala sponsorship system.”
The NGO accused the Qatar government of failing to rigorously implement the changes, throwing into doubt a pledge by key stakeholders that the World Cup would be a game changer for migrant workers.
“The clock is ticking but it’s not too late to turn the ink on paper into real action,” said Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s global issues programme director.
“Now is the time for Qatari authorities to be bold and fully embrace their programme of labour reforms; any progress to date will be wasted if Qatar settles for weak implementation of policies and fails to hold abusers to account.”