May 18, 2017 Stephen Russell

Alternative Facts

There’s a reason we don’t trust Qatar when they tell us we’re wrong about the prediction of 4,000 deaths before the 2022 World Cup. It’s because they can’t stop themselves hiding, misrepresenting or ignoring statistics. They won’t give free and independent access to journalists and researchers to find out the truth (they arrested German and British TV crews trying to talk to migrant workers), and they won’t even carry out their own proper review of the situation, despite being advised to do so by a major report they commissioned from the law firm DLA Piper back in 2014. They certainly won’t allow workers the right to join a union and report these problems themselves.

Our latest beef is the sleight of hand of quoting an ILO report back at their critics. The report, say supporters of the government of Qatar, shows that only 35 workers died in Qatar last year. The International Labour Organisation has indeed been putting pressure on Qatar to fix its systemic abuse of migrant workers, which it alleges put it in breach of international regulations regarding forced labour (one of the few labour standards Qatar has bothered to sign up to). As part of that process the ILO carried out a review, sending a small “tripartite” (representatives of governments, employers and workers were sent) team to carry out a series of fairly surface level investigations. The report that followed it quotes figures from a Qatari hospital showing 35 deaths .

So there it is, in black and white: seemingly, a UN report showing that only 35 workers died in Qatar. Their commitment to workers has apparently been so impressive that they’ve gone from 1,000 workers dying between 2012-13 (as stated in their own DLA Piper report) to only 35 last year, which frankly is probably less than the UK. That would be in the realm of miracles (if still too high in the context of such a small country).

The problem here is the section of the report where this figure arises is part of a chapter dedicated to stats provided by the Qatari government.  They’re not independently researched, or even verified. They’re just statements from an interested party. It’s the equivalent of making something up, putting it on a blog, waiting for a serious newspaper to pick it up and then quoting it as a fact because it’s in a newspaper.

Fellow campaigners report that their efforts to spread the word about conditions in Qatar have been met with dissenting voices quoting the 35 deaths figure as fact because it appears in a UN report: “Here’s an extract from the recent ILO report!” An article in “Gulf Business” about the deaths last week at a military construction project said “despite this, worker deaths are rare, with 35 recorded last year by the UN.” They were indeed recorded by the UN, they were quoted in a UN document; just as you could find, if you looked hard enough at ILO documents, a quote of the ITUC’s 4,000 figure that Qatar is so keen to rebut. Is that now an official UN figure too? I suspect Qatar would be less fond of that prospect.

We don’t know that the Government of Qatar is intentionally spinning this to its advantage, or whether some of its weird international fan club have willfully got the wrong end of the stick, but next time someone doubts the figures, remember this: Qatar’s government is more than happy to stop people reporting the truth on any number of subjects, including conditions for workers. Until they allow independent investigation, and better still, rights for working people to raise these issues themselves, anything they say about worker deaths has to be taken with a hefty dose of cynicism. What’s more, every bit of effort they put into arguing the point is effort they’re not putting into fixing the problem.