(CNN) -- There's nearly a decade to go before a ball is kicked at soccer's 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. But the tiny Gulf state, which won the right to host the event nearly three years ago, is embroiled in controversy over the treatment of the huge migrant labor force within its borders.
Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, defended his country's efforts in a CNN interview, and said he was outraged by the claim made last week by an international labor organization that it is a "slave state."
But at the same time, he acknowledged that it takes time to develop and enforce labor rights laws in what is one of the world's fastest developing countries.
The "slave state" claim came as Sharan Burrow, secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation, warned that if current trends continue an estimated 4,000 migrant workers may die in Qatar as they toil on construction projects in the run-up to the World Cup.
She told CNN that the world could not "sit by and watch the conspiracy of silence that appears to be surrounding Qatar" in the face of the risks faced by migrant workers.
"You're talking about a slave state," she said. "That's an extreme statement, I know, in the 21st century. But what else can you call an environment where workers are totally controlled by an employer?
"They're forced to live in squalor, they are indeed pushed to work in extreme heat, often left without enough water for very long hours and then they go home to cook food in unhygienic conditions, live 8, 10, 12 to a room, and even if they want to leave, if they've just had enough, they can't go because the employer has to sign an exit visa or sign the papers to allow them to work for a better employer."
Rights groups have repeatedly warned that migrant workers in the tiny but hugely wealthy state face miserable conditions.
Al-Thawadi: 'Appalled' by claims
Those concerns were reignited by a report by Britain's Guardian newspaper last week which alleged that thousands of Nepali migrant workers are enduring dire conditions, and that 44 died over the space of nine weeks this summer. More than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents, it said. Some laborers told the paper they were denied access to free drinking water despite the summer heat.
A CNN report in May highlighted allegations by rights groups that thousands of construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup have been abused, denied their wages and trapped in a situation from which they cannot escape because, under Qatar's visa system, workers cannot leave the country without their employer's consent.
Asked about Burrow's comments, Al-Thawadi told CNN: "I'd be worried and concerned and appalled and disgusted at any individual working on any project -- not just relating to the World Cup, but any project out there -- that suffers such circumstances, and definitely these stories that have been reported are being investigated currently. The government is taking a look at them.
"I've had discussions with many representatives of the government at senior levels and they've all indicated that there are investigations into this matter.
"But it's also important to focus on the fact that currently these activities that are going on, or that have been reported about, are actually illegal under the company laws, (which) very clearly criminalize these actions, and as soon as the government or the relevant authorities take a look at them action is taken."
The ITUC claims that fatal construction work injuries in Qatar are eight times higher than in other rich countries, putting laborers at serious risk. Those from India and Nepal make up the bulk of the estimated 1.2 million migrant workers in Qatar, it says.
"The absolutely hazardous conditions mean that up to 4,000 workers from just two countries where we have statistics -- Nepal and India -- will die before the World Cup kicks off if we don't see international intervention," Burrow said.
Workplace accidents, cardiac arrests
There are different accounts about the scope -- and causes -- of the workers' deaths.
Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, a government body, said Monday in Doha that the mortality figures published in recent media reports "greatly varied from the actual numbers" and stressed that it "realizes the value of all human lives."
About 55 Nepali workers died last year "either as a result of neglecting safety measures or because of actions committed by the workers themselves," out of about 340,000 Nepali workers currently in Qatar, it said in a written statement. So far this year, that figure stands at 15, it said.
Figures attributed to "representatives of the (Nepali) community" support the Qatari figures, indicating that in total 276 Nepalis died in Qatar last year and 151 through September this year. Of the deaths last year, half were put down to "natural causes" and a fifth, or 55, to workplace accidents.
This year so far, 10% of deaths, or those of 15 workers, occurred in workplace accidents, with half the total again attributed to "natural causes." The remainder are attributed to traffic accidents and "disputes."
What is not clear is whether the migrants' working conditions might have contributed to the deaths from natural causes.
Documents provided by officials at the Embassy of Nepal in Doha, seen by CNN and cited in The Guardian's report, give a somewhat different picture. They indicate that 169 Nepali migrants died in Qatar last year, although they also cited 151 dead so far this year. Many of the deaths are attributed to "sudden cardiac arrest" or other cardiac failure, but again, no further explanation is given.
The officials said "roughly 400,000" Nepali migrants are in Qatar.
Nepali community leader Narendra Bahadur Bhat, coordinator of the Non-Resident Nepali Association in the Middle East, said that conditions in Qatar are comparable to those for workers elsewhere in the Gulf, that Nepali workers have legal protections in Qatar, and that efforts by Qatari and Nepalese authorities to improve their working conditions continue.
At the same time, he said, "We can't say that the work circumstances are ideal; we are facing challenges regarding salaries, issuing the residency and providing adequate accommodations."
Bodies sent back to Nepal 'every day'
Suresh Man Shrestha, secretary of the Ministry of Labor in Nepal, told CNN that the return of the bodies of migrant laborers to Nepal from overseas already is a daily occurrence.
"Every day, one to three bodies of Nepali migrant workers are sent back to Nepal," he said. "From July 2012 to July 2013, 726 bodies have returned, mostly from the Middle East."
Almost half a million Nepalis depart as migrant workers each year, mainly for Middle East and Malaysia, Shrestha said. He put the number of Nepalese workers in Qatar at 793,000.
Shrestha gave three reasons for the tragically high death toll among Nepali laborers, who quit the Himalayan kingdom on the promise of better paying jobs to help support their families.
First, workers die in accidents, he said. Laborers who have perhaps never seen a skyscraper before are made to work on extremely tall buildings.
Another factor is the heat, he said, with workers from the Himalayas unused to searing desert temperatures. Third, Shrestha highlighted the poor employment conditions that many migrant laborers suffer.
'Crucible of exploitation'
Qatar has faced repeated calls for reform since it was awarded the World Cup in late 2010.
The group said then that if the labor reforms promised when the wealthy Gulf nation won the 2022 World Cup did not materialize, the tournament "threatens to turn Qatar into a crucible of exploitation and misery for the workers who will build it."
On Friday, Burrow said the ITUC had been in discussions with FIFA, soccer's world governing body, and the Qataris about how to improve the situation but nothing has changed, highlighting the need for international pressure.
"We've never seen countries so quiet about what is in fact modern-day slavery. It has to end," she said. "There can be no World Cup in Qatar without labor rights. ... If they engage with us, we can help them fix it."
But Al-Thawadi insisted that labor abuses are not tolerated by Qataris and that things are changing.
"The issues that are being raised are not part of my culture," he said. "We unequivocally are outraged. We definitely do not accept these cultures happening within our society and we are taking action about it."
He said laws have been established and policies are being implemented, but "it's important to take things in perspective." Since 1995, he said, "there has been significant development that has occurred in the state of Qatar, probably the fastest developing nation on Earth," including a population boom.
"During this period of time with rapid construction, rapid urban development, rapid population growth, the country is still committed towards putting in place policies to address these situations," he said. "The issue is in terms of finding a system of enforcement to enforce these policies. The government has been taking actions towards it (but) this can't happen overnight."
Al-Thawadi said the government is seeking to ensure that it takes sustainable action, providing long-term, enforceable solutions rather than a quick fix.
Feeling the heat
FIFA said last week it would raise the issue of worker rights with Qatari authorities and would discuss the latest reports at the FIFA executive committee meeting that started Thursday in Zurich, Switzerland.
The world professional footballers association, FIFPro, has said that "Qatar must respect the rights of the key people who will deliver the 2022 FIFA World Cup: the workers who build the World Cup stadia and infrastructure and the professional footballers who play in them."
FIFA's top officials will also be considering a call for the Qatar tournament to be moved to the winter months because of fears that players and fans would be adversely affected by the searing heat, which can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer.
Europe's football associations voted earlier this month against holding the tournament in the Qatari summer -- although FIFA will make the final decision.
Al-Thawadi acknowledged that summer in his country is hot, but said "other nations have hosted similar World Cups in similar if not more severe conditions."
In addition, he said, Qatar is investing in cooling technologies for stadiums, training areas and fan areas.
Labor groups say the workers toiling to build the World Cup infrastructure in these conditions are even more deserving of concern.
CNN's Schams Elwazer, Sumnima Udas, Jon Jensen, Monita Rajpal, Aleks Klosok, Sarah Holt, Carol Jordan, Stephanie Ott and James Montague contributed to this report.