A top Qatari official involved in the country’s World Cup organisation has put the number of worker deaths for the tournament “between 400 and 500” for the first time, a drastically higher number than any other previously offered by Doha.
The comment by Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary-general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, appeared to come off the cuff during an interview with broadcaster Piers Morgan.
It also threatened to reinvigorate criticism by human rights groups over the cost of hosting the Middle East’s first World Cup.
Migrant labourers built more than $200bn-worth of stadiums, metro lines and new infrastructure needed for the tournament.
The Supreme Committee and Qatar’s government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the interview, portions of which Morgan posted online, the journalist asks Mr 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?”
Mr al-Thawadi replies: “The estimate is around 400, between 400 and 500… I don’t have the exact number. That’s something that’s been discussed.”
But that figure has not previously been discussed publicly.
Reports from the Supreme Committee dating from 2014 to the end of 2021 only include the number of deaths of workers involved in building and refurbishing the stadiums now hosting the World Cup.
Those figures put the total number of deaths at 40, and 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 coronavirus amid the pandemic.
Since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar in 2010, the country has taken some steps to overhaul the country’s employment practices, including eliminating its so-called kafala system, which tied workers to their employers, who had a 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 (£225) for workers and required food and housing allowances for employees not receiving those benefits directly from their employers. It also has updated its worker safety rules to prevent deaths.
“One death is a death too many. Plain and simple,” Mr al-Thawadi added in the interview.
Activists have called on Doha to do more, particularly when it comes to ensuring workers receive their salaries on time and are protected from abusive employers.
Mr a-Thawadi’s comments also renew 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 labourers from South Asia nations like 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 Mr al-Thawadi’s remark.
“For him now to come and say there is hundreds, it’s shocking,” he said.
“They have no idea what’s going on.”