Up to now, information on how many of Qatar's migrant workers are dying has been limited to the Nepalese. But Qatar's campaign to host the 2022 World Cup has made it a focal point
It was a cursory, four-paragraph news story: the Times of India last October reported the case of four Indian workers who were killed while cleaning manholes in Doha. They joined a grim tally that has now reached 717 Indians alone since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in December 2010.
Up to now, information on how many of Qatar's estimated 1.2 million migrant workers are dying has been limited to the Nepalese. That is partly because it was easier for NGOs to count the number of coffins returning to Kathmandu airport than those being repatriated to a huge country such as India. As with workers from other nations, including Bangladesh, Iran and Nepal, official information has been hard to come by.
Yet while we now know how many Indians, who make up around a fifth of the Qatari workforce, have died, we don't know who they were, or how.
The fate of migrant workers in the tiny Gulf state is by no means unique, with neighbouring countries facing similarly intractable issues. But Qatar's remarkable, money-no-object campaign to host the 2022 World Cup and an accompanying trolley dash around world sport, culture and academia has made it a focal point.
It took shocking reports by human rights groups and an investigation by the Guardian to force the issue up the agenda. And there has been a defensive reaction within Qatar. Some feel the tiny country, with its lucrative reserves of liquid gas, has been victimised.
The danger is, in the face of western criticism and in the strong belief they have done more than most of their neighbours to be progressive, that they will now circle the wagons.
Fifa and the Qatar World Cup organising committee are now tangled in a Gordian knot. The human rights groups that have been pressuring Fifa and the Qataris demand to know whether there will be any meaningful reform to improve the welfare and safety of workers on all building projects. In Qatar itself, where politics has been described as akin to a medieval star chamber, an internal battle is raging. There are liberal forces who want to change the labour laws but are equally aware that sweeping away the kafala system that ties migrant workers to their employers would place huge question marks over its ability to fulfil its "2030 Vision" for the country.
The dizzying and unprecedented plan to spend hundreds of billions transforming the infrastructure of a country that was largely desert as recently as the 1970s can only be founded on cheap migrant labour.
Therein lies the dilemma – not only for the Qatari authorities, but for the British, German and French companies that have profited handsomely from the bonanza.
Abolish the culturally embedded kafala system and with it may go the mechanism for ensuring the almost absurdly ambitious plans to build cities, metro lines, roads and airports from scratch.
A previous forecast that Qatar would spend £137bn in the run up to the 2022 World Cup has, remarkably, proved an underestimate.
A senior executive at one of Qatar's largest banks told a conference in Bahrain last month that the Gulf state would spend £123bn on infrastructure projects in the next four years alone as it attempts to position itself for the future.
In a letter to the European parliament, Qatar's ministry of foreign affairs last week said it had increased the number of inspections and sanctioned 500 companies in January alone. A comprehensive charter has been published for contractors working specifically on World Cup stadiums, with the organising committee insisting it can act as a beacon for change.
These moves are designed to show the world that it is at last grappling with a complex problem. But those who have seen the deadly effects of lack of enforcement, mixed messages and a kafala system that virtually invites abuse say that they are not nearly enough.
"There are figures within Qatar who recognise just how damaging this issue is and who appreciate the importance of labour reform, but they are facing strong opposition from a short-sighted business community that is stubbornly opposed to the notion of loosening the grip on its foreign workers," said Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch.
"It is up to the new Emir and those close to him to placate these opponents and convince them that labour reform is not only feasible, it is in every Qatari's best interests."
The Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, ascended to power last year after his father, who oversaw the World Cup bid and set in train the huge spending spree, handed over power.
That has left the 33-year-old at the mercy of a range of courtiers. Under pressure from within and without, it remains to be seen which way he will jump.Aware of the employment opportunities on offer, the mother countries of those migrant workers appear reluctant to rock the boat, while also doing too little to tackle the agents and middle men who prey on those seeking a passage to work in Qatar and neighbouring Gulf states. Until recently, it suited both to maintain silence, with Fifa caught in the middle and floundering. It is increasingly clear that will no longer be tenable.
McGeehan said: "Fifa can't say it wasn't warned and can't plead impotence in the face of these figures. It has to send the strongest possible message to their Qatari partners that they need to implement reforms immediately."