A Gentle Reminder

qatar world cup labour death
Latha Bollapally, with her son Rajesh Goud, holds a picture of her husband, Madhu Bollapally, 43, a migrant worker who died in Qatar. Photograph: Kailash Nirmal

Cruelty has its own beauty, and over the course of the last one month that sublime monster has danced on the deserts of Qatar like there is no tomorrow. Oh, what a dance it has been! No matter what monolithic wall of insulation you erect, no matter what estranged island of solitary confinement you choose, no matter what saintly, supercilious philosophy you proclaim, the strange affairs of the greatest show on earth will, if it has not already, transcend those boundaries and inoculate you with the madness of football. To fall prey to this intoxication is only natural, there is no shame in it. Should anyone claim otherwise, rather than wasting time arguing, let them treasure their gullibility.

As we eagerly look forward to the penultimate battles of this world cup, as the heat of the stat-heavy debates on endless segments of talk shows is turned up a few notches, as the football pundits busy themselves in their esoteric discussions (in a desperate bid to establish their authority), as millions, no, billions around the globe gear up for the tragedies and victories, the upsets and the au revoirs to be staged tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, let us take a moment and reflect over the moral dilemma the Fifa World Cup 2022 entails, albeit such intellectual exercise is a luxury in these pandemic-wrecked, inflation-trampled days.

The dilemma, however, is so pronounced, that the mere mention of “Qatar” invokes morbidity. The death of six thousand and five hundred migrant workers, as estimated by The Guardian, most of whom were from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In 2020 alone, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports, 50 people suffered work-related deaths, 500 were seriously injured, and 37,600 sustained mild to moderate injuries in Qatar.

But well, it would be a shame to single Qatar out, in a world that has been rather unapologetic in tallying workers’ deaths as it continues to erect modern-day equivalents of pharaonic pyramids. The ILO estimates that some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year, corresponding to over 6000 deaths every single day. The annual number of occupational accidents worldwide is around 340 million, with 160 million victims of work-related illnesses.

Numbers can be deceiving. 6500 is a rather underwhelming number, taken in the context of 6000 work-related deaths every single day. Underwhelming, because no detailed statistics on the number of workplace deaths, occupational injuries, or economic cost of the untimely death of a worker at their peak productivity can narrate the emotional toll that was taken on countless parents, partners, children and siblings. Little can we know about the misery, the agony, the unbearable feeling of destitution and the impenetrable curtains of misery that snuffed out whatever little hope the families of the deceased and incapacitated migrant workers from around South Asia, and Africa held onto.

All these macabre businesses of deaths and injuries and other sad tales, by now quite well recorded in both mass and social media, only form one horn of the dichotomy we set ourselves to delve into. The other horn, of course, goes by the name “guilt”.

Football, so passionate, so elegant in its athletic aesthetic, so powerful in its spirit of inspiration, that at times it has imposed itself as “larger than life”. Is it possible to indulge in something so beautiful while the death of at least 6500 human beings looms large? Is it possible to omit the human cost, while celebrating human excellence? Is it humane to stay impervious?

And hence, this is a gentle reminder.

This is a gentle reminder that as we drench in the high notes of emotion that oscillate in perfect sync with each goal or each penalty save, let us also spare a little space for the men, women and children who have lost their lives or suffered at the cruel hand of capitalism. That as we celebrate the undaunted Marrakesh Express, as we marvel at the spellbinding runs of Lionel Messi, as we witness in disbelief the mastery of an almost-40-year-old Luka Modrić, let us also cherish the memories of the workers who were sacrificed at the altar of a $220 billion investment. As we weep at the departure of Brazil, as we regret the somber end to the world cup run of the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo, as we bid farewell to the gentle yet brave team of Japan, let us also dedicate a tribute to the modern-day wage-slaves who toiled to their death.

This is a gentle reminder that as we wait in agony for our most beloved teams to lift up that gold-wrapped trophy, let us also hope that the workers of the world unite and lose their shackles.

Omar Raad Chowdhury works in a private research firm in Dhaka.

Email: omar.raad.chowdhury@gmail.com

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