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Comment |

Should Human Rights
Influence LEED Certification?

FRIDAY, JUNE 27, 2014

By Robert J. Kobet, AIA

The FIFA World Soccer championships are underway in Brazil, and the U.S. Green Building Council is proud of the fact that six World Cup stadiums have achieved LEED certification.

The LEED standouts include South America’s largest stadium, Maracanã, in Rio de Janeiro.

Macarano Stadium
Wikimedia Commons / Arthur Boppré

South America’s largest stadium, Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, has been certified LEED Silver. The USGB says that World Cup 2014 is spotlighting the success of high-performing buildings.

EDC magazine recently reported that LEED Silver Maracanã stadium, originally built for the 1950 FIFA World Cup, is reprising its role by playing host to the final game of the 2014 World Cup.

Maracanã will also serve as a venue for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, hosting both the opening and closing ceremonies as well as major sporting events. At least five other FIFA-sanctioned venues have achieved USGBC LEED certification.

Venues in the Spotlight

“As the world's top teams take the field, the venues themselves are in the spotlight, demonstrating not only worldwide applicability and adaptability of the LEED green building rating system, but also Brazil’s leadership position at the forefront of the movement to high-performing green buildings,” said Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chair of the USGBC.

Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba.
World Cup Portal / Government of Brazil

Eight construction workers have been killed on World Cup stadium sites. The latest was Muhammad Ali Maciel Afonso, 32, who was was electrocuted May 8 while working at Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba.

“FIFA and the government of Brazil have shown great leadership and commitment to mitigating the environmental impact of these World Cup facilities and for making them a showcase of sustainable construction for the international community.”

Rights and Transparency

But the fervor over greening the soccer venues comes amid growing concern over corruption within FIFA and its lack of transparency regarding whether its policies honor basic human rights.

Consider the following:

In June 2012, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), warned of dangerous working conditions in Qatar.

“Without genuine legal protection and union rights, more workers will die building the World Cup stadiums than players will play in the World Cup itself,” he said.

Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.
George Ahammadhu / Twitter

Two workers were killed Nov. 27 in a crane collapse at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. An international labor union says that World Cup 2022 in Qatar will have more construction worker deaths than players.

The ITUC also reports that some workers are being denied time off until they have completed a year of work—and even then are being given only three days of leave per year.

In April 2013, a report from the United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO) said that 94 percent of all workers in Qatar were migrant workers, and that many may be victims of human trafficking.

Some migrant workers have been forced to pay recruiters a fee averaging $550 just to secure a job in Qatar, the agency said. Meanwhile, the jobs are often not as high-paying as promised, or may be entirely different from the jobs promised before the worker left his or her home country.

In September 2013, The Guardian reported that at least 44 Nepalese workers died during the summer while building infrastructure for the World Cup.

Workers say they have not been paid for months, and have been denied access to food and water. The Guardian describes the conditions as “modern-day slavery.”

Migrant Worker in Qatar
Courtesy of Robert Kobet

The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that more than 4,000 migrant workers could die in Qatar while working on construction projects for the World Cup there.

The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that due to deplorable working and housing conditions, more than 4,000 migrant workers could die in Qatar while working on construction projects for World Cup 2022.

In March 2014, ITUC released a report saying that at least 1,200 migrant workers had already died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded to the country. ITUC has also called on Qatar to end the migrant-labor sponsorship system known as kafala and to allow workers to unionize.

Egregious Violations

The allegations put forth in these reports include some of the most egregious human-rights violations possible.

The accusations include falsifying death certificates, failing to return the bodies of deceased workers to their families, indentured servitude, and withholding payment from workers.

Moreover, as migrant workers far from home, these individuals have no ability to address the conditions to which they are subject.

Creative Commons / Ricardo Stuckert, ABr

Joseph Blatter is president of FIFA, which has been accused of ignoring human rights violations. Critics have urged FIFA to withdraw the 2022 World Cup from Qatar.

FIFA is, at the very least, guilty by association. Time will tell if more serious, direct charges are leveled at FIFA or individuals within the organization.

Respecting Social Equity

The USGBC is currently working on weaving social equity concerns into its LEED rating systems.

The organization's efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti prove it has the capacity to act positively when human tragedies occur.

It also has gone to great lengths to defend the use of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards in the LEED rating system, in part because it addresses human equity issues. 

The USGBC must not LEED-certify projects that involve blatant human-rights violations. 

There is plenty of time to put FIFA on notice that if its “great leadership” continues to include what many around the world consider serious human-rights violations, the USGBC will not LEED-certify any projects associated with it.


Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet has enjoyed a dual career as an architect and educator. For more than 35 years Kobet practiced internationally in the fields of sustainable design and development, high-performance green buildings, LEED consulting and environmental education. He is currently enjoying a working retirement that includes a position as adjunct faculty in the Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design where he teaches a variety of courses based on sustainability and regenerative environmental stewardship. For more about Kobet, please visit



Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Building design; Construction; Good Technical Practice; Green building; LEED; Schools; The Kobet Collaborative; Health and safety; Workers

Comment from John Fauth, (6/30/2014, 8:46 AM)

Two trains have left their respective stations, traveling towards each other on the same track. Let's all watch as the wreck ensues.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (6/30/2014, 11:26 AM)

I must be missing something - what is the connection between LEED and Qatar - football?

Comment from Robert Kobet, (6/30/2014, 7:51 PM)

First, I hope it is not a train wreck. My premise is very simple. FIFA has jurisdiction over where the World Cup Championships are played. In the case of Qatar, there is already ample evidence the workers building the infrastructure for the games have been subject to numerous human rights violations, and, to date, there is no reason to believe they will abate as the venues themselves are constructed. FIFA is complicit in these violations and thereby responsible by association. Unless this changes, I feel the USGBC should withhold LEED certification of any venue associated with the FIFA sponsored World Cup games. There is ample time for the USGBC to work with FIFA to address these violations. I would like to see the USGBC assume a leadership role in championing human rights. One vehicle for this is the Social Equity Credit under development, which I feel should be a prerequisite. Then, if human rights are violated in any way, the project is not eligible for LEED certification. To me, insuring human rights and social equity are more important than adding to the LEED certified building inventory, despite the high profile, size or level of innovation inherent in the subject buildings.

Comment from John Fauth, (7/2/2014, 8:30 AM)

Robert, the real tragedy is this kind of thinking turns every industry organization into an activist for political and social engineering. Will they withhold LEED certification in countries with repeated and obvious human rights violations... like China and Saudi Arabia? How about certain cities in the US that aren't politically correct? Social equity? What the hell is that? Is social equity prevalent in India? You'll have to be a contortionist to twist yourself into the knots this kind of logic requires. Pass the popcorn... this is going to be entertaining.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (7/3/2014, 11:51 AM)

One person’s suffering is another person’s entertainment. It’s ok when an industry organization turns into an activist organization to squash LEED by political lobbying (Ohio)? I've worked on a few LEED projects, and don't love the whole process; it can be argued that the benefits are marginal, but at least there are some people willing to try to make improvements. Here's what I do, whether the project is LEED, or not, or if the task at hand is buying sneakers or groceries: educate yourself. Make sound and ethical decisions. It is very easy to find out about a company, their culture, environmental record, political influencing. If you don't agree with their agenda, don't buy their product. You vote for a president once every four years. You vote for your values every time you open your wallet.

Comment from John Fauth, (7/7/2014, 8:50 AM)

Andrew, I completely agree with you about making everyday personal choices to spend your hard earned money on products made by companies that reflect your values. On the other hand, there's been boatloads of public money wasted on the concept that it's necessary to "do something" (ie: do anything, just so we can be seen as doing something). When results are divorced from revenue sources (ie: when it's someone else's money), a lot of unethical people get rich.

Comment from Robert Kobet, (7/8/2014, 12:17 PM)

First, I appreciate everyone who has contributed to this blog. Please know I have struggled with the question of human rights and social equity in what I do for some time. I have worked in twelve countries on five continents and have seen much of the human condition others only see in 30 second bits on the news. Working in emerging countries means navagating a whole other set of social, economic and cultural constructs that take time and energy to understand. I'm still working on that, human rights and social equity being a part of it. What I am hearing about in Qatar may not be on par with what I saw in Rwanda after the genocide, but I don't think it is right. Working on Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti was more about the people than the facility itself, but I know advocating for energy, material and resource efficient facilities better enabled the physicians and support staff to do their humanitarian mission. LEED was never mentioned, as we all knew the money was better spent on penicillin. The USGBC has made a great deal of the LEED Platinum School constructed in post Haiti after the earthquake, and that is OK. I wish they would recognize Hopital Albert Schweitzer as a world heritage site, and put the same amount of resources into it, given it's 60 year history of serving the needy in that country. To John's point, I have also worked in Dubai, as a USGBC LEED workshop facilitator and private consultant. It was ten years ago in Dubai the issue of working conditions in Qatar's part of the world was brought to my attention by an UAE national. It was disturbing, and got me thinking about the broader issues I am attempting to deal with now. I also worked on the Beijing Olympic Village, a housing development near Shanghai, and a new town development near Guilin. In each case the projects were built with local labor, not conscripted foreign laborers, and I did not sense the working conditions to be life threatening. I know the interest in LEED is growing in China; I have seen it first hand. China is grappling with enormous environmental problems directly related to development. Whether adopting development model that includes LEED, sustainability and human rights eventually tempers their attitude toward their very homogeneous population remains to be seen. I'm not suggesting for a moment the issues are simple, or straight forward. I am not that naive. To the contrary, I know they are complex. My personal stance at this point (subject to change as I educate myself further or as opportunities to precipitate change present themselves) is that while I cannot influence national politics per se, I am free to work or not work for individuals, companies or organizations in any country who overtly violate human rights or allow dangerous working conditions. So, while I may not be able to change Qatar's position on exploiting immigrant workers, I do not have to work for FIFA, directly or indirectly. I fully understand the USGBC's mission and drive to increase the number of LEED certified buildings, but I find overtly praising FIFA something I cannot support. I was raised to believe you are either part of the answer or part of the problem. I have already reached out to the USGBC committee working on the LEED Social Equity credit and anticipate my first conversation with them this week. I'm not sure what social equity is in every respect, John, but I am willing to work for the possibility of the USGBC and LEED advancing what I intuitively sense is good. However small the impact might be, I believe it will be better than accepting the status quo. In that regard, I know my voice pales in comparison with the statement the USGBC could make.

Comment from John Fauth, (7/17/2014, 9:10 AM)

Robert, I appreciate your sincere description of grappling with your response to the realities of human rights around the world. Personally, I do much the same. I'm actually one of "those people" who reads the label on the shirt I might buy, looks at the North American (and where possible, US) content of the vehicle I purchase, considers how a prospective employer treats people around the world, etc. But too many people (I'm certainly not suggesting you) find it tedious to do so, and want someone else to have a conscience for them. It's an interesting contrast evident in people who don't want the US to exploit its social and economic constructs around the world, but can't live with the results and want some other "agency" to do so for them. Sometimes an environmentally friendly construction project should be just that. Make a contribution to the Peace Corps or a human rights advocacy group. And don't make them accountable for quality construction practices.

Comment from Robert Kobet, (7/22/2014, 2:06 PM)

Thank you, John. Well said. Clearly, we need to "Be the change we want to see" We'll see if the USGBC, Green Globes or the Living Building Challenge choose(s) to make a statement, or stake a position re: human rights, trafficking, dangerous working conditions, etc. The more I research FIFA, the less they seem like an organization that has these interests at heart, so I don't think the change will come from them.

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