Does health and safety matter in other countries 2?

This is the second of my two blogs about health and safety. The first one is here.

Part 2: Construction & Sport

The Guardian newspaper has recently been reporting on the conditions construction workers have to bear working in the Middle East; with a strong focus on Qatar and the 2022 world cup. Many of the workers are effectively slaves, with passports and pay withheld and no rights, under a system called Kafala. Accident rates are hard to find, but the Guardian has established that 382 Nepali workers died in Qatar in 2012 and 2013 (with the real figure likely to be higher). Nepali workers make up only one sixth of Qatar’s entirely immigrant construction workforce. That suggests to me that possibly thousands have died. This is a scandal, or it should be. Sadly the conditions construction workers are subjected to in the Middle East have been well known the construction industry for as long as I’ve worked in it[1]. It’s similar in many countries around the world, especially those that rely heavily on migrant labour.

The fact is that it’s only on highly visible projects like major sports events where anybody takes any notice. That however means that these events are an opportunity to raise standards and awareness; and indeed there is evidence that such improvements occur at many games. The European Institute for Construction Labour Research has investigatedpractices at several Olympic Games and notes that often the opportunities for workers are good and the pay and conditions better than normal; but it also notes some pretty shocking practices. Even in Beijing it is noted that improvements were made on normal practices. Athens is an exception, where construction practices and safety took a big step backwards, while London set new standards and achieved record low accident rates and zero fatalities, for the first time in the Modern Games’ history.

The table below shows the best data I’ve been able to find about fatality rates at various games. The background fatality rate in the wider construction industry is given where known.

Games Deaths Background rate: deaths per 100,000 per year, from ILOStat Reliability
Barcelona ‘92 2 26 (1999)10.6 (2008) 12 deaths have been claimed by theEuropean Institute for Construction Labour Research, but it notes that the accident & fatality rate was lower than for normal construction in Spain.Sources: 1, 2
Atlanta ‘96 1 10 (2008) Can’t find any official statistics – at least one person was killed. Sources:1, 2
Sydney ‘00 1 4.4 (2008) Sources: 1, 2, 3
Athens ‘04 14 Not known Real number likely higher, as documentation of deaths is not good. Higher numbers are widely claimed. Sources: 1, 2, 3
Beijing ‘08 6 Not known Confirmed by China, but a figure of 10 or more is claimed. Sources: 1, 2
Delhi Commonwealth Games ‘10 43 Not known Real number may be higher. Sources: 1
Vancouver ‘10 1 8.7 (2008) In a road blast accident. Source: 1
South Africa World Cup ‘10 2 Not known Source: 1
London ‘12 0 4.5 (2006) One worker died on site of a heart attack unrelated to his work. Sources: 1, 2, 3
Brazil World Cup ‘14 9 26.4 (2000) Source: 12, 3
Sochi ‘14 25+ Not known Sources: 1, 2
Brazil ’16 0 Not known
Russia World Cup ‘18 3+ Not known Sources: 1
Qatar ‘22 100s Not known Sources: 1, 2, 3
Know any better sources? Please add a comment below – I’ll update the table.

Against a background of continual improvement, and sports events generally improving on the status quo, Sochi and Qatar seem to be very regressive steps. FIFA has been forced to admit that the conditions in Qatar are “absolutely unacceptable” – a tacit admission also that it must do better in choosing hosts in the future. Let’s hope it lives up to this. Qatar has been forced to improve conditions for workers, but will only do so for those working directly on the stadia – a pathetic fraction of the workforce involved in constructing the World Cup infrastructure. There are no plans to make lasting changes to the Kafala system.

There has been quite a lot of research into what made the London 2012 construction so safe, and it’s freely available. The major international sporting bodies and their sponsors must take an active role in promoting these lessons and the large body of knowledge about safety in construction, and in promoting good working practices. And not just promoting, but requiring. It can’t just be down to human rights organisations to campaign for such improvements, and major events are such a big opportunity to showcase how well things can be done.

Sport is meant to bring us together and celebrate human achievement. It surely can’t do that when the whole event is built on the suffering and exploitation of the builders.