Unless urgent action is taken, more than 4,000 lives are at risk over the next seven years due to accidents on construction sites associated with World Cup facilities in Qatar, the leader of an international trade union body says.

In a statement released last Friday, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Sharan Burrow said current mortality figures regarding migrant workers in Qatar from Nepal and India alone show that on average 400 die each year.

Based on government estimates which suggest the country will need between 500,000 and one million additional workers from these and other South Asian and African countries to build World Cup infrastructure, Burrow says – a 50 percent increase on the current 1.2 million migrant workers currently in the country – then in absence of any reform to reduce injury rates, the number of deaths in the country could rise to as many as 600 per year, or more than 4,000 between now and the World Cup.

“More than 4000 workers risk losing their life over the next seven years as construction for World Cup facilities gets under way if no action is taken to give migrant workers’ rights” Burrow said.

Burrow says Qatar’s mortality rate for construction workers is more than eight times that of rich world averages, and that despite more than two years of efforts on the part of her organisation to engage with FIFA and the country’s government, no substantial measures had been put in place to guarantee the rights of workers as specified under international law.

The latest claims follow media reports in UK newspaper The Guardian last week that 44 Nepalese workers died in the country during the nine week period between 4 June and 8 August – with more than half of the deaths emanating from heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents.

The reports, which follow an investigation by the paper, also revealed evidence of slavery or forced labour on a big World Cup project, non-payment of Nepalese workers, confiscation of passports and ID cards, denial of access to free drinking water in the desert heat and an instance of about 30 Nepalese seeking refuge from brutal employment conditions at their embassy in Doha.

Other recent reports have also revealed that throughout Qatar:

  • 119 Nepalese construction workers have died over the course of the past nine months (The Himalayan)
  • In July alone, a record 32 Nepalese workers died in the country – most construction workers in their 20s (Doha News)
  • 83 Indian workers died in the first five months of 2013 (Gulf Times).

The latest reports also follow a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year documenting widespread labour abuses associated with the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

That report documented cases of migrant workers doing odd jobs such as carpentry, welding and steel fitting being cheated out of wages, being made to work unrealistically long shifts, having their passports and work permits confiscated and not being given employment contracts.

Burrow says the solutions to problems such as these are well known, and has called on the Qatar government to recognise worker rights, build effective dispute mechanisms and abolish the kafala sponsorships system common in Arab Persian Gulf states under which domestic sponsors effectively control the visa and legal status of migrant workers.

She says the international community should offer support and technical assistance to set up effective labour compliance procedures, and has encouraged football fans around the world to sign a petition calling for a rerun of the vote to choose a venue where worker rights are respected.

“The Government of Qatar needs to take responsibility for the migrant workers in the country – firstly by working with responsible recruitment companies to ensure ethical recruitment of workers with a particular focus on World Cup construction and services” Burrow says.