Despite reports of thousands of deaths, the Qatari authorities are only recognising "three official deaths" during the construction of the eight stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. Strikingly, those three deaths were recorded on the construction sites of Belgian company Besix – one of the main sponsors of the Red Devils.
Belgian construction group Besix announced in October 2017 that it would be one of the main sponsors of the Belgian national football team at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, stating that the company and the team share the same "key values: respect, discipline, passion and determination to push their own boundaries."
At that time, Besix was already running two projects in Qatar in the context of the upcoming World Cup: the renovation of the Khalifa International stadium and the construction of the Al Janoub stadium. Both projects are led for Besix by Six Construct, the entity it founded in 1967 for its activities in the Middle East.
The works started in 2014. Two years later, in 2016, Amnesty International published a report on the "appalling" working conditions at the construction site of the Khalifa International stadium, citing corrupt recruiting agents, lies about wages, confiscated visas and passports, forced labour, threats and working days in the scorching heat.
Three official fatalities
Confronted with the report, Six Construct told VRT that it had already intervened six months earlier and cancelled contracts with the most "rogue subcontractors." Still, between the publication of the Amnesty International report and the announcement of the sponsorship deal with the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA), two people died while working on Besix' World Cup construction sites in Qatar.
On 22 October 2016, a 29-year-old Nepalese construction worker Anil Kumar Pasman was hit by a construction truck at Al Janoub Stadium and died from his injuries.
A few months later, on 19 January 2017, 40-year-old British scaffolder Zachary Cox fell to his death when a hoist broke while he was building scaffolding at the Khalifa Stadium. The 40-metre-high platform on which he stood collapsed, Cox' safety gear could not absorb the shock of the fall and snapped. He sustained severe injuries to his chest and head and later died in hospital.
Over nine months after the agreement with the RBFA, a third person died at the Besix World Cup site: on 14 August 2018, 23-year-old scaffolder Tej Narayan Tharu from Nepal fell from a 36-meter walkway at Al Janoub Stadium, because he did not see that a plank was removed.
In a written response given to VRT, Besix confirmed three people indeed lost their lives during the construction works of the two World Cup stadiums in Qatar that the company delivered. “There were unfortunately three fatal accidents during the five years we worked on the stadiums in Qatar (2014–2019). These five years represent 100 million working hours for Besix and our subcontractors."
"This ratio of three fatal accidents per 100 million working hours is lower than the fatal accident rate of the construction sector in general in Belgium, which is 4.6 fatal accidents per 100 million working hours (the sector had 52 fatal accidents from 2017 to 2020 for more than 1.1 billion working hours on construction sites in Belgium)."
Besix also pointed out that it actively cooperates with the Qatari authorities, which "regularly and independently" assessed the working and living conditions of migrant workers in their territory and reported openly on this.
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In its statement, Besix emphasised that it has addressed almost all working condition abuses on its sites and continues to work on improvements, pointing to agreements with Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), an international federation of 351 trade unions from 127 countries.
However, an investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian last year revealed thousands of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka worked in appalling conditions on the stadiums and infrastructure that make the tournament possible, and at least 6,500 of them died in the process.
Official figures by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of the UN also speaks of 50 death in 2020 alone. Still, the Qatari government sticks to its "official" figure of three fatalities – a number echoed by Gianni Infantino, the chairman of the World Football Association FIFA, whose controversial opening speech raised a lot of eyebrows last weekend.