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Report Reveals More Than 6,500 Migrant Workers Have Died In Qatar's World Cup Prep

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Qatar was proud when it was awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup, allegations of bribery notwithstanding. But building seven high-tech stadiums and the infrastructure to support them in the small Gulf Arab country would be a massive undertaking, and it has had a terrible cost. The Guardian newspaper reports this week that more than 6,500 migrant laborers have died in the course of that work. We're joined now by Pete Pattison, in Nepal, who's one of the reporters who worked on that investigation. Mr. Pattison, thanks so much for being with us.

PETE PATTISON: My pleasure.

SIMON: Qatar has long been criticized by labor and migrant groups for what amounts to human rights abuses. The events organizing committee says that 37 laborers involved in stadium construction have died with all but three of those deaths being non-work related. Where does your 6,500 number come from?

PATTISON: If you analyze actually what those deaths include, some of them include workers who collapsed on the stadium construction site and died after they were taken off it. Others died in road traffic accidents on their way to work in a company bus. And many others died suddenly in an unexplained way in their labor camps. So it's highly contentious to say those deaths are non-work related. The larger figure of 6,500 represents all those workers from five South Asian nations who have died in the past 10 years in Qatar. I would argue the vast majority of them have been involved in low-wage, dangerous, extremely difficult laboring work. But the figure also includes others who have worked in white collar jobs.

SIMON: And can you break down the cause of deaths?

PATTISON: Some of the deaths caused by workplace accidents, some are caused by road traffic accidents, some are suicides, but the vast majority are categorized as so-called natural deaths, which essentially means deaths that are sudden and unexplained. Most commonly, these are linked to cardiac or respiratory failure. Now, the problem is there's no actual medical understanding of the real causes of these deaths. And that's largely because Qatar very rarely does autopsies. And so when you look at the death certificates of these workers, it's almost like they've just copied and pasted the same cause of death time and time again. Now, we know that heat is a factor in some of these deaths. Of course, in the summer months, Qatar is an extremely hot place, but that's not the full picture. There is something else going on, and we don't know precisely what it is because the Qatari authorities have refused to investigate what's behind these deaths, even though they were awarded the World Cup 10 years ago.

SIMON: What do we know about working and living conditions for migrant workers from those five Asian nations?

PATTISON: For migrant workers who are involved in laboring work - that may be construction work, it may be landscaping work, it may be security guards - the working conditions are very, very hard. I've mentioned the heat. Of course, you got very long hours as well. They often live in labor camps far away from their work site. So beyond their working hours, they travel up to two hours each way just to get to their labor camps. And then when they get to the labor camps, they live in often truly squalid conditions with eight, 10, sometimes 12 men sharing a room, appalling unhygienic toilets and kitchens. These are really not places that human beings should have to live in.

SIMON: Mr. Pattison, I think a lot of people familiar with the region would find nothing new in this. The human cost of a lot of building in Qatar have been going on for years. Why does your investigation concentrate on the infrastructure for the World Cup?

PATTISON: The abuse of migrant workers in Qatar, in Saudi Arabia, in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere in the Gulf has been going on for years. What the international community needs to do is to step up and demand reform on these widespread abuses. The World Cup is a catalyst for this. Qatar chose the spotlight of the World Cup. Everyone in the world loves football, and they don't want to see their sport tainted by workers rights abuse.

SIMON: Mr. Pattison, any indication since your reporting came out that countries or fans will call for a boycott of the games?

PATTISON: Well, I started reporting on this issue in 2013, and at that time, there were calls for a boycott. At the time, I felt it was a little simplistic because I thought that the spotlight that the World Cup brought to bear on Qatar would help to push through reforms. I've become less optimistic about whether those reforms will be pushed through.

SIMON: And any response from FIFA, the international association, of course, that governs the World Cup?

PATTISON: Correct. FIFA have been incredibly hands off in all of this. They have taken no meaningful action to demand changes. They have rarely spoken out strongly in favor of changes. They have been very passive on this whole issue.

SIMON: Pete Pattison of The Guardian, thank you so much for being with us.

PATTISON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.