World Cup organisers in Qatar have responded to FIFA’s demand for more detail regarding their workers’ conditions.
A Qatar human rights body has said the reported deaths of 478 Indian workers in Qatar during the last two years was “normal”, a figure that another human rights group has called “horrendous”.
AFP news agency reported the deaths on Monday following an information request to the Indian embassy in Doha. The embassy said 237 had died in 2012 and 241 in 2013, but did not provide their causes of death.
In response to the figures, Ali bin Sumaikh al-Marri, the head of Qatari government-affiliated National Human Rights Committee, told AFP on Tuesday: “Indians make up the largest community in Qatar… twice the number of Qatari nationals.”
About 500,000 Indians live in Qatar, which is experiencing a construction boom staffed primarily by young men from South Asian countries.
He said: “If we look at the numbers of Qataris who died … of natural causes … over the past two years, we see that numbers of deaths among the Indian community are normal.”
The country’s ministry of labour and social affairs told the Guardian newspaper that they were aware of some of the figures from local media reports and were working to understand the causes of these deaths.
“Clearly any one death in Qatar or anywhere else is one death too many – for the workers, for their families, but also for Qataris who welcome guest workers to our country to perform valuable jobs,” it said.
“We are working to understand the causes of these deaths – as these statistics could include a range of circumstances including natural causes, and road safety incidents, as well as a smaller number of workplace incidents.”
Campaign against Qatar
Al-Maari said he wanted clarifications on the circumstances of the deaths, insisting that there was a “campaign against Qatar,” AFP reported.
Qatar has faced mounting criticism from human rights groups over the safety and working conditions of migrants working in the construction industry, which has been highlighted in media reports since last year mostly focusing on Nepalese workers.
Nicholas McGeehan, the Qatar and UAE researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that it was not helpful to dismiss the death figures as “normal” and claim it as a campaign against the country when it already had a bad safety record.
He said: “We need to hear how the workers died, and we need to find out the extent of how it was related to their living and working conditions,” he said.
“The Indian embassy should be as concerned about these figures as the Qataris […] because they give an indication of an unfolding tragedy in Qatar.” He described the figures as “horrendous”.
High death rate
On average about 20 migrants died per month, peaking at 27 in August last year. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) describe that rate as “exceptionally high”.
AFP asked the Indian embassy for correspondence between staff and the Indian government regarding the treatment of its nationals, but this request was declined.
The Indian foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment.
In a report published in 2012, Human Rights Watch warned that Qatar would be synonymous to worker exploitation unless there was reform, but McGeehan said that measures taken fell short of what was needed.
Most of the labourers working on the new stadiums and vast infrastructure projects ahead of football’s biggest tournament in the tiny but wealthy Gulf state are from South Asia.
Qatar has a “kafala” system which means migrants are sponsored by an individual, who then exerts enormous control over their lives and leaves some workers trapped.
Earlier, this month, Qatar revealed a set of guidelines aimed at protecting the rights of thousands of expatriate workers employed on its construction projects.
FIFA executive committee member Theo Zwanziger said last week that the World Cup could help improve the country’s “appalling” human rights record by inviting closer scrutiny.