A Qatari official involved in the organization of the country's World Cup has put the number of worker deaths related to the tournament "between 400 and 500" for the first time, a number at least 10 times higher than any previously offered.
As reported by The Associated Press, the comment by Hassan Al-Thawadi, the secretary general of Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, appeared to be an off-the-cuff remark during an interview with British journlist Piers Morgan. But it nonetheless threatened to renew criticism by human rights groups over the toll of hosting the Middle East's first World Cup given the migrant workers who built more than $200 billion worth of stadiums, metro lines and infrastructure needed for the tournament.
A statement on behalf of a Qatari Supreme Committee spokesperson said on Tuesday: "The Secretary General told Piers Morgan's 'Uncensored' programme that there were 3 work-related deaths and 37 non-work related deaths on the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy's projects.
"This is documented on an annual basis in the SC's public reporting and covers the 8 stadiums, 17 non-competition venues and other related sites under the SC's scope.
"Separate quotes regarding figures refer to national statistics covering the period of 2014-2020 for all work-related fatalities (414) nationwide in Qatar, covering all sectors and nationalities."
In the interview, portions of which Morgan posted online, the journalist asked Al-Thawadi: "What is the honest, realistic total do you think of migrant workers who died from — as a result of work they're doing for the World Cup in totality?"
"The estimate is around 400, between 400 and 500," Al-Thawadi responded. "I don't have the exact number. That's something that's been discussed."
Reports from the Supreme Committee dating from 2014 to 2021 include only the number of deaths of workers involved in building and refurbishing the stadiums now hosting the World Cup. Those released figures put the total number of deaths at 40. They include 37 from what the Qataris describe as non-work incidents such as heart attacks and three from workplace incidents. One report also separately lists a worker death from COVID-19 amid the pandemic, according to the AP.
Al-Thawadi pointed to those figures when discussing work on stadiums in the interview, before offering the death toll of 400-500 for all the tournament infrastructure.
As reported by the AP, since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar in 2010, the country has taken steps to overhaul the country's employment practices. That includes eliminating its kafala employment system, which tied workers to their employers, who had say over whether they could leave their jobs or even the country.
In addition, Qatar has adopted a minimum monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275) for workers and required food and housing allowances for employees not receiving those benefits directly from their employers, according to the AP report, which adds Qatar has also updated its worker-safety rules to prevent deaths.
"One death is a death too many — plain and simple," Al-Thawadi added in the interview, as reported by the AP.
Mustafa Qadri, the executive director of Equidem Research, a labor consultancy that has published reports on the toll of the construction on migrant workers, said he was surprised by Al-Thawadi's remark.
"For him now to come and say there is hundreds, it's shocking," Qadri told the AP. "They have no idea what's going on."