When asking someone to describe the worst thing that’s happened at the Olympics, you may expect the answer to involve our underwhelming men’s sevens performance or this morning’s narrow defeat on the cycling track. On a more serious note, it has been hard to ignore a number of worrying issues in the lead up to the games.
One of these has been the concern that Rio’s Olympic infrastructure would not be ready on time. A year out from the competition, official reports showed that some venues were several months behind schedule. Five weeks out, building debris still littered the site and a crucial subway link had not been completed. Somehow, Brazil’s construction industry stepped up their game, although news outlets continued to report of post-construction issues and shoddy living conditions.
People often don’t consider the price that this accelerated construction comes at. For Rio, it was eleven lives. Since the beginning of 2013, eleven construction workers died on the job. To put this figure in context, eight workers died during preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, six during preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and zero for the 2012 London Olympics.
Cynthia Lopes, a public prosecutor at Rio de Janeiro’s labour court explained to ThinkProgress ‘the Brazilian construction industry has a bad record when it comes to health and safety, but when you have a fixed deadline to deliver projects, as is the case with the Olympics, things get even worse.’ The health and safety issues have been described as a ‘scandal’ by Robson Leite, an ex-Superintendent at the Ministry of Labour in Rio. Many failings have been identified, including construction site suspensions put in place by the Ministry of Labour being overruled by the mayor’s office.
Global improvement of health and safety is likely to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Even now, it is clear that the eleven deaths in Rio will pale in comparison to the death toll in Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup. Unfortunately, until more is done to improve workers’ rights and safety on a global scale, lives will continue to be lost. The construction sector can’t change the number of winners in big sporting competitions. What it can do is change the number of losers.