“Behind today’s mega sports events are an army of construction workers, labouring in unsafe conditions with little oversight or regulation”, BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson told an audience attending the BWI Global Conference on the Nexus of Sports and Migration on 27-28 June in Berlin, Germany.
“These workers build the sporting venues and infrastructure required to hold mega sports events. They are migrant workers. They are precarious workers. They are underpaid and unsafe workers. Every day the BWI and our millions of members across the globe are fighting to ensure these workers’ rights are protected and their health and safety improved. And it is working!”
Cooperation between the BWI and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), the Qatari Government organization responsible for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup, is illustrative of this momentum.
The 2016 Memorandum of Understanding negotiated between BWI and the SCDL has resulted in a programme of joint health and safety inspections of both worksites and accommodation. To date the BWI-SC inspection team has conducted inspections of the Al Wakrah and Al Bayt stadiums and accommodation facilities operated by Sixco of Belgium, Salini Impregilio of Italy, and Larsen and Turbo of India.
Simon Hester, who was employed as a frontline inspector for the United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive, has been part of the BWI inspection team on two occasions. In a panel entitled, “Health and Safety in Mega-Sporting Events: Joint Inspections from South Africa to Qatar” he stated, “The BWI and Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy Joint Inspection is unique mechanism to improve the work site conditions and accommodation of migrant construction workers.”
He also noted that the construction sites he inspected so far have performed well on safety standards, however there is little apprehension of occupational health, particularly in light of the conditions of extreme heat stress in Qatar.
Geert Aelbrecht, Group Human Resources & Communication Director and Member of the Management Board at Besix Group also participated in the panel. Besix under Sixco is responsible for the construction of the Khalifa and Al-Wakrah stadiums. He noted that the joint inspections have been beneficial in assisting them strengthen health and safety monitoring. He also stressed, that the company is committed to upholding similar standards across all company worksites and working with contractor to prevent accidents and uphold livelihoods.
In a country where many migrant workers are denied fundamental freedoms through the kafala system, bonded to their employers, and frequently subjected to exploitation, union intervention is transforming the public dialogue and making concrete improvements for workers.
Joint inspections have now become a cornerstone of the BWI approach. An MoU negotiated between BWI and its Russian affiliate the Russian Building and Woodworkers’ Union (RBWU) with FIFA and the FIFA Local Organizing Committee in Russia has resulted in 16 joint inspections that cover issues such as occupational health and safety, employment conditions, and living conditions for migrant workers.
The need for these interventions is evident. As the BWI has noted elsewhere, there have been at least 17 fatalities on Russia World Cup stadiums, including at Volgograd, Rostov on Don, and St. Petersburg. In addition, the exploitive employment conditions of North Korean migrant workers working at the St. Petersburg stadium has been highly publicized by the international media including the Norwegian magazine Josimar.
President of the RBWU Boris Soshenko noted that there have been notable improvements between successive rounds of inspections; however, he stated that one of the lacking components at the worksite is the lack of exposure and education to occupational health and safety regulations, training, and information materials to workers. One of the lacking component at worksites has been the low amount of exposure to OHS regulations and information material for workers.
There remains much to be done. The BWI is working to embed international labour and human rights standards within the tender documents of mega sports events, and unions from countries bidding for future events are actively lobbying their Governments to promote labour rights as core benefits of their proposals. “We all want our favourite athletes push themselves to amazing achievements, and the BWI is committed to making sure that this doesn’t come at the cost of workers’ safety on the job”, Yuson concluded. “Through our collective action, we are making the workers that build mega sports events possible safer and more organized than ever!”