More than 400 Nepali migrant workers have died on Qatar’s building sites since the Gulf state won the bid to host the soccer World Cup in 2022.
At the same time, more than 20 Indian laborers die on average every month on Qatar’s construction sites. Employers show an appalling lack of concern for workers’ safety, and Qatari authorities race to meet construction deadlines and keep costs down.
Unless radical improvements in labor conditions begin now, more than 4,000 workers are estimated to die – and countless others permanently maimed – when the World Cup begins.
Throughout the oil-rich Gulf States, an apartheid-like social system prevails. At the top are the Arab sheikhs who never get their hands dirty but reap the profits.
Below them are the senior executives of American and European banks and corporations, followed by middle management.
Then come South and Southeast Asian professionals and business folk.
At the bottom are the migrant laborers, from Filipina housemaids to unskilled construction workers from the Indian subcontinent who live in squalid, overcrowded accommodations and have little or no legal protection.
The latter are heavily indebted to loan sharks at home who have paid for their passage to the Gulf.
The pace of construction combined with desperation on the part of workers willing to make huge sacrifices to improve the living conditions of their families back home results in a massive potential for exploitation.
These grim statistics about worker mortality did not come through investigations by South Asian governments, which show no interest in the plight of their migrant labor.
All that concerns them is the foreign exchange the migrants earn and send home.
The statistics were unearthed and published by a local news agency invoking India’s Freedom of Information Act – forcing the embassy in Qatar to reveal how many Indian citizens had died in the past two years – and human rights organizations that compiled lists of the dead using official sources in Qatar.
When, last December, an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and strip-searched by federal agents for violating United States’ visa regulations, it provoked howls of outrage among the Indian media.
This was an “insult to the pride of the nation.” The Indian government was prompt with its reprisals against spouses of U.S. diplomats working in India.
No such outrage attends the deaths of Indian construction workers in Qatar and elsewhere.
The Indian social elites are not only apathetic toward their own poor, they also find them a deep embarrassment “to the pride of the nation” and wish they could disappear.
Writing in The Times of India three decades ago, sociologist Rajni Kothari lamented: “As I talk to my friends, my relatives, my professional colleagues today, I get a feeling of total ignorance of the other India.”
“When in fact they are forced to take note, such as when they walk through the pavements on which people are sleeping, there is a feeling of revulsion, of rejection, of contempt, not of compassion, empathy and least of all of any sense of guilt,” he said.
Little has changed since Kothari wrote these chilling words. The hyped-up talk in Western media about India’s “economic boom” ignores the fact that economic growth was not accompanied by any significant increase in employment.
The only “dynamic” private activity generating jobs in the past decade has been construction.
However, most construction in India is marked by a lack of concern for minimal standards of worker safety and other basic protections, just as in Qatar.
We don’t know how many workers die or are injured while working on building sites in India because such data is rarely gathered.
Indian economist Jayati Ghosh of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University cites official survey data to state that about 95 percent of all Indian workers are stuck in informal activities, “in precarious and often exploitative and low-paying contracts.”
More than half of these are self-employed, which means that they are responsible for their own safety.
Ghosh also observes that neglect of workers’ rights has been part of an economic strategy that sees economic growth as worth almost any cost.
Private investors must be provided with state incentives to allow them to deliver growth. Worker protection is seen as inhibiting “wealth creation.”
This strategy delivered growth without creating decent jobs for a while; now even that growth is running out of steam.
It is no wonder that the poor are desperate to migrate abroad in search of work, even leaving young families behind.
In places like Qatar, Dubai or Singapore, it will take several years before they have paid off the loan sharks from the meager remittances they send home.
Recognizing the rights of migrant workers cannot be separated from the need to recognize the rights of workers in their home countries.
This would mean bringing morality and political responsibility back into the heart of economic policy.
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.