6,750 migrant workers’ deaths in Qatar in last 10 years, report finds

Migrant workers in Qatar face systematic abuse and labor rights violations, issues which have gone unaddressed by the government despite repeated appeals by human rights groups and labor organizations

February 24, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Qatar workers deaths
(Photo: Pete Pattisson)

A new report compiled by British newspaper The Guardian has revealed that as many as 6,750 migrant workers died in the Gulf state of Qatar in the ten-year period from 2010 to 2020, Middle East Eye reported on Tuesday, February 23. The workers were predominantly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The report states that an average of 12 workers have died every week since December 2010 when Qatar won the rights to host the Football World Cup 2022, resulting in a massive construction and development initiative led by the Qatari government. This created the need to hire millions of migrant workers from several Asian and African countries, including some countries not included in the report. 

The report relies primarily on official government data and states that 5,927 migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal have died in Qatar in the last decade, with Pakistan accounting for 824 workers’ deaths. Deaths from the final months of last year have not been included in this report, The Guardian clarified, adding that the final death toll will likely be significantly higher as the report does not include records from other Asian and African countries such as the Philippines and Kenya.

International human rights organizations and labor rights groups have repeatedly expressed concern while highlighting the mistreatment and abuse that migrant workers face in Qatar. There have been demands for the Qatari government to introduce reforms to improve the workers’ living conditions, ensure their physical well being and safety at work, and for prosecuting and penalizing individuals and entities that violate workers’ rights. 

Under to the controversial Qatari Kafala system, workers were treated as virtual bonded laborers of their respective owners/bosses. The Kafala system was universally condemned, which led to the government abolishing it in September 2020. However, the government still has a long way to go to make any substantial changes or improvements in other issues related to workers’ rights, such as extremely low wages, long work shifts, delays in payment, and unsafe work conditions.

The report details how the Qatari government has been opaque when it comes to the recording of workers’ deaths. An unusually high number of workers’ deaths have been attributed to ‘natural causes,’ almost 80% in case of Indians (of a total 2,711 workers’ deaths). For India, Nepal and Sri Lanka combined, this figure stands at 69%. Among the other reasons cited in the records are deaths from multiple blunt injuries due to falling from a height, asphyxia due to hanging, and undetermined cause of death due to decomposition.

The report adds that the cause of death is often determined without an autopsy being conducted. Thus, a medically valid and legitimate explanation for the underlying cause of death is seldom given. The International Labour Organization and several human rights groups have in the past claimed that many of these deaths could be a result of extreme heat stress which the workers experience while working long hours outdoors. Qatar experiences excruciating hot climate during the summer months when temperatures can reach as high as 50 degrees Celsius.

Criticizing the Qatari government, Amnesty International’s Mary Romanos said in a statement, “there is a real lack of clarity and transparency surrounding these deaths. There is a need for Qatar to strengthen its occupational health and safety standards.”  

Hiba Zayadin from the Human Rights Watch also accused Qatar of “dragging its feet on this urgent and critical issue in apparent disregard for workers’ lives,” adding that “we have called on Qatar to amend its law on autopsies to require forensic investigations into all sudden or unexplained deaths, and pass legislation to require that all death certificates include reference to a medically meaningful cause of death.” 

A report compiled by lawyers from the Qatari government also found various inaccuracies in the records of workers’ deaths and recommended that a study be commissioned to investigate the deaths, especially in cases of death after sudden cardiac arrest. It advised the government to amend the law to “allow for autopsies … in all cases of unexpected or sudden death.” 

The Guardian report states that no action has been taken on either of the two recommendations by the government till date.