By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
SOCHI, Russia – Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, “Race To The Bottom,” last week detailing the exploitation of migrant workers who built sites and infrastructure, including the Central Olympic Stadium, the Main Olympic Village, and the Main Media Center, for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
HRW learned that employers cheated migrant workers out of wages, required 12-hour shifts with few days off, and confiscated passports and work permits, which forced migrant workers to stay in their current job. The watchdog organization stressed a need for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Russian authorities, including the State Corporation OlympStroi, to rigorously monitor worker’s rights in the coming year before the 2014 Olympic Games.
2014 will be Russia’s first Winter Olympics and its first Olympics since the Summer Games of 1980. As a pet project on which President Vladimir Putin has staked his reputation, Russian officials have promised the games next year will be the most expensive ever, with a price tag exceeding $50 billion (China spent $42 billion on the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing). Putin’s personal spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov defended the project as an opportunity to develop the Sochi region, while simultaneously comparing the magnitude of the project to the “reconstruction of cities and towns after World War II.”
In Russia’s strive for greatness, the region of the Black Sea coast town of Sochi, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, is being transformed, necessitating tens of thousands of construction workers, including over 16,000 migrant workers from outside of Russia. HRW spoke to 66 workers, nearly all of whom had low-wage, low-skill jobs. They came from countries such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, and earned as little as 55 to 80 rubles (US$1.80 to $2.60) an hour.
Some of the workers interviewed indicated that they did not receive full wages, were never paid at all, or had their wages kept from them as a tactic to keep them on a project. Working 12-hour day, 7-days a week, they did not receive the benefits of a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, or a day off per week, which are all mandated under Russian law. Some employers convinced workers to continue to labor for months with the promise that pay would come soon.
For some workers, the lack of salary is particularly trying because in many instances, the migrant workers came to Russia in order to support their families back home as the sole breadwinners. When they are paid, they send the majority of their earnings home.
Although accommodations and meals were generally provided, housing was overcrowded (e.g., one employer provided a single-family house as living quarters for 200 migrant laborers) and meals were insufficient to sustain people laboring for 12 hours a day.
In several instances, migrant workers who complained of the ill treatment, exploitation, or unfair wages were denounced to the authorities and deported. It was quickly demonstrated that foreign workers, with limited knowledge of the language, issues with residency, and a fear of legal repercussions proved particularly vulnerable.
The International Olympics Committee (IOC) claimed in a statement that it had raised the issue of worker exploitation. However, the IOC has by and large praised Russian authorities’ preparation for the Olympic Games. The IOC has furthermore failed to address numerous other human rights allegations in Russia, such as restrictions on public assemblies, new internet restrictions and a re-criminalization of libel.
Furthermore, while OlympStroi, the state company overseeing official construction, had conducted some 1,300 inspections into exploitation allegations, it found only a small number of violations.
“As the IOC meets in Sochi this week to celebrate the one-year countdown to the 2014 Winter Games, it has a chance to make a strong statement about respect for human dignity by publicly calling on the Russian authorities to put an end to worker exploitation,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Olympic Games are about excellence and inspiration. The world should not cheer Winter Games in Russia that are built on a foundation of exploitation and abuse.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first story of abuses in the Stroi region. Last fall, thousands of residents were forced to move to make way for the present construction. While most received some form of compensation, at least dozens of homeowners were forcefully relocated and never compensated at all. Environmentalists have also warned of illegal dumping, destruction of forests and wildlife, and similar violations.
Even athletes currently on site for trial events have been surprised by large numbers of heavily armed riot police, frequent checkpoints, and constant requests to show ID to not only access athletic venues but also to exit, as well as to simply enter their living quarters.
Buchanan further commented: “Like the athletes competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia has big hopes and dreams for its performance in Sochi as the host. But exploiting workers is a victory for no one, and Russia urgently needs to change course.”
For further information, please see:
HRW – Russia’s Anti-Olympic Spirit – 8 February 2013
HRW – Russia: Migrant Olympic Workers Cheated, Exploited – 6 February 2013
Huffington Post – Migrant Workers at Russia Olympic Sites Face Abuses, Human Right Watch Says – 6 February 2013
New York Times – Putin’s Vision of Olympic Glory Meets a More Earthbound Reality in Sochi – 6 February 2013
RFE/RL – HRW Criticizes Exploitation at Russian Olympic Construction Sites – 6 February 2013