Qatar World Cup chief criticized for 'callous' remarks about migrant worker's death

After the reported death of a migrant worker at a World Cup training site, the head of Qatar's organizing committee rebuffed journalists' questions, saying: "Death is a natural part of life."

Filipino worker reported to have died from fall at resort being used as a training site

Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of Qatar's World Cup organizing committee, told reporters 'Death is a natural part of life,' in response to a report that a migrant worker had died at a World Cup training site. Khater is pictured at a press conference in Doha on Oct. 17. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

The head of Qatar's World Cup organizing committee is facing criticism over his remarks about the reported death of a Filipino migrant worker at a training site during the tournament.

Nasser Al Khater, chief executive of the 2022 World Cup in Doha, confirmed to Reuters that a worker had died, but gave no further details. He offered his condolences to the man's family, but was dismissive of further questions from journalists.

"Death is a natural part of life, whether it's at work, whether it's in your sleep," Khater said. "We're in the middle of a World Cup. And we have a successful World Cup. And this is something you want to talk about right now?"

Qatar's treatment of migrant workers has come under enormous scrutiny during the build-up to the World Cup, with human rights groups accusing the Gulf state of systematic labour abuses — charges rejected by the government.

Human Rights Watch condemned Khater's remarks, saying he showed a "callous disregard" for the dead worker.

"Khater's statement that deaths happen and that it's natural when it does ignores the truth that many migrant worker deaths were preventable," Rothna Begum, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told CBC News in a statement.

Migrant workers watch Qatar play Ecuador on a big screen in Doha on Nov. 20. Qatar's treatment of migrant workers has come under enormous scrutiny ahead of and during the World Cup. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Investigation into death

Online sports publication The Athletic on Wednesday reported that the man worked for a company contracted to fix lights in a car park at the Sealine Resort, the training site of the Saudi national team. It said he died after he slipped off a ramp while walking alongside a forklift and hit his head on concrete.

Citing multiple unnamed sources, it said the accident occurred during the World Cup, but did not specify when.

Qatari officials confirmed they had launched a work safety investigation.

"If the investigation concludes that safety protocols were not followed, the company will be subject to legal action and severe financial penalties," a Qatar government official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

A migrant worker carries a pole at a construction site in Doha on Dec. 6, 2016. Qatar and its World Cup organizers have disputed news reports about the number of migrant workers who have died in the country in recent years. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

"The rate of work-related accidents has consistently declined in Qatar since strict health and safety standards were introduced and enforcement has been stepped up," he said.

The Philippines' foreign ministry confirmed in a statement that one of its nationals had died while working at a resort south of the capital Doha. It said its embassy was "working with legal authorities to ascertain more details of his passing."

In a statement, FIFA said it was "deeply saddened" by the news of the worker's death.

"As soon as FIFA was made aware of the accident, we contacted the local authorities to request more details. FIFA will be in a position to comment further once the relevant processes in relation to the worker's passing have been completed," a spokesperson told CBC News.

Qatar disputes death numbers

Since being awarded World Cup hosting rights in 2010, Qatar had come under the microscope over its treatment of migrant workers, who account for the majority of its population.

The tournament, the first to be held in the Middle East where other countries have also faced criticism over migrant workers' rights, has been mired in controversy. Some soccer stars and European officials have been criticizing Qatar's human rights record, including on labour, LGBTQ+ people, and women's rights.

A World Cup stadium is pictured under construction in Lusail on Dec. 20, 2019. Human rights groups have accused Qatar of systematic labour abuses of migrant workers, including those who built its World Cup infrastructure. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

Qatar's World Cup organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, said in a statement that it was not involved in the Qatari investigation as "the deceased [was] working as a contractor, not under the remit of the SC."

The number of work-related deaths in Qatar is in dispute.

Britain's Guardian newspaper reported last year that at least 6,500 migrant workers — many of them working on World Cup projects — had died in Qatar since 2010, based on its calculations from official records.

In response, Qatar said the number of deaths was proportionate to the size of the migrant workforce, and included many non-manual workers, adding that every life lost was a tragedy. The SC said that three work-related deaths and 37 non-work related deaths had occurred on World Cup-related projects.

This month's FIFA World Cup is a big one for Canada. It's the first time in 36 years that our men's team has qualified to compete, and the last World Cup before Canada shares hosting duties in 2026. But in the decade since Qatar won its bid to host this year's tournament, allegations of bribery, discrimination and human rights abuses have threatened to overshadow the game. Qatar criminalizes same-sex relationships and a report from the Guardian says at least 6,500 migrant workers have died since its successful bid. As players and fans grapple with how to protest, we're joined by Roger Bennett of the Men in Blazers podcast. He's just co-authored a new book called Gods of Soccer and is co-hosting World Corrupt, a podcast that dives deep into FIFA corruption and the World Cup in Qatar.

With files from CBC News