The Olympics, World Cup & Construction Worker Deaths

Two of the world’s most popular international sporting events are taking place this year. The Winter Olympics will kick off on February 7th in Sochi, Russia while the World Cup will take place at stadiums throughout Brazil starting in June. I for one will be tuning in to watch both these events. I grew up playing soccer so watching the World Cup is no-brainer and as for the Olympics I am completely fascinated by the sport of curling.

And while total attendance for both events will be in the millions, with billions more watching from home, very few will probably give much thought to all the construction work that took place in these host countries and cities in order for them to take place. New stadiums and venues have to be constructed, existing stadiums have to be renovated and upgraded and roads and other public infrastructure have to be built.  We’re talking massive construction projects with costs totaling in the billions and employing thousands of construction workers.

Construction projects of this magnitude are inherently dangerous and that’s not even accounting for the fact that these projects have very hard and fast completion deadlines that must be met. You can’t just postpone the Olympic Games or World Cup matches by a year just because construction has been delayed or fallen behind schedule. This is why I wasn’t shocked to read an article last month about a construction worker who had died from injuries he sustained after falling 115 feet while working on the Arena da Amazônia in Manaus, Brazil for the World Cup. I was shocked, however, to learn however that this was the second fatality at this stadium, also from a construction worker falling while working at height back in March. This brings the total number of deaths involving construction work related to the World Cup to seven. I wasn’t able to find the total number construction deaths related to the Sochi Olympics but it was reported that at least 25 workers died in 2012 alone.

So what’s to blame for this inexcusably high number of construction related deaths? Clearly the safety standards and regulations for the protection of these construction workers are either inadequate or are not being properly enforced or followed. The workers that fell could have easily been saved had proper fall protection been implemented. A crane collapse at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians resulted in two workers being killed back in November. A safety engineer for that project apparently warned that such a collapse was possible because the rain-soaked ground was not stable enough for the crane to safely lift a 500-ton piece of roofing. Despite claims to the contrary from officials it appears that safety is taking a backseat to getting construction completed as soon as possible.

There are appalling reports from both Russia and Brazil about the horrendous working conditions being forced on the construction workers. Allegations have been made of workers forced to work 12-hour days with little to no time off during the week for rest, exploitation of migrant workers and delays in payments to construction workers, sometimes for months. In Sochi there have been accusations of squalid living conditions, confiscation of passports and abuse of migrant workers. These unacceptable practices need to be addressed immediately especially since both nations are hosting major international sporting events in the next few years. Rio is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics and Russia is the host nation for the 2018 World Cup.

The governing bodies for both of these events, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), need to do a better job of ensuring construction workers are protected in preparation of these games. Perhaps FIFA and the IOC should develop their own strict set safety standards and regulations and mandate that the host countries/cities adhere to them even if they supersede local and national labor protection laws. They also need to have officials onsite at construction projects to monitor oversee that safety measures are being enforced. If FIFA and the IOC are unwilling take a more active role in ensuring construction worker safety then they should only award these events to places that already have a majority of the venues, stadiums and infrastructure in place in order to host.

Not all major international sporting events in recent history have been plagued with high numbers of construction worker fatalities. There were no construction-related deaths associated with the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, an impressive feat. For the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver one worker died from a blast during road construction and only two deaths were reported from construction for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. On the flipside of those low numbers there were 10 fatalities during construction of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and 14 for the 2004 Greece Summer Olympics.

Those numbers pale in comparison to the high fatality rate being reported from Qatar where the 2022 World Cup will take place. There are a large number of migrant workers from Nepal doing construction in preparation for the games. Although construction on the venues and other projects directly related to the games hasn’t started there is massive construction underway including the construction of Lusail, an entire city being developed that will be home to one of the stadiums that will be built. Over a three-month period last summer at least 44 Nepalese workers died. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) claims that 4,000 migrant workers will die by the time the games start. Workers have made claims of being forced to work in 122°F heat with no access to free drinking water. Living conditions are abysmal and many claim that employers withhold wages and have confiscated their passports making it impossible to leave the country. This equates to nothing less than modern-day slavery.

At this point it’s too late to move the Winter Olympics and the World Cup to other venues this year. Based on what took place in both these countries the IOC and FIFA should seriously consider changing locations for the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. FIFA should also do the same for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. If you tune in to watch either of these events this year don’t expect to hear any media coverage about the deaths or witness any kind of ceremony to honor those who died.  It won’t happen, but it should.

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