Thousands of migrant workers, many from Central Asia and the Caucasus, are toiling in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to help stage the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Many are abused and exploited, working in miserable conditions for little or no pay, Human Rights Watch said today.
Released a year before the games kick off, the 67-page report, entitled “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” documents gross violations of Russian and international law, as well as the Olympic spirit.
Tens of thousands of workers, including an estimated 16,000 workers from outside Russia, are helping prepare Sochi for the showcase games, which open next February 7. Human Rights Watch (HRW) focused on these migrant laborers because, compared with Russian workers, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Researchers interviewed 66 construction workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
Migrant workers said employers subjected them to a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all; withholding identity documents, such as passports and work permits; failing to provide employment contracts, or failure to respect terms of a contract; and requiring excessive working hours and providing little time off. […] In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested against abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia.
Authorities and construction companies interviewed by HRW deny the allegations.
Workers described overcrowded living conditions and long hours, sometimes weeks without a day off. Meals, often part of workers’ contracts, are bereft of the calories necessary to toil on construction sites. HRW found that “in some cases up to 200 workers lived in very cramped conditions in a single family home.”
“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,” Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, said in a press release. “We’re not talking about problems with just one worker or violations by one particularly bad employer. We’re talking about serious, consistent reports from workers on several of the major Olympic sites.”
Officials now estimate the games will cost over $50 billion – almost five times over budget – making these the most expensive Olympic Games in history. A representative of Transparency International believes as much as 50 percent of that total is being stolen.
But the workers are seeing little of it.
Isamiddin, a 43-year old worker from Kyrgyzstan who had been working in Sochi for several years and supports a wife and five children, told Human Rights Watch,
“Twice they fined me 1,000 rubles [$32] for not showing up to work. I was sick both times. But they considered that I failed to show up without a proper explanation. And that’s the way it is. When you earn 600 to 700 [$19 to $22] rubles a day, but they fine you 1,000 to 1,500 rubles [$32 to $49] for one day you miss, I think that’s not fair.”
HRW has called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to address the labor rights violations. At the time of the report, though the Committee had taken some individual cases to Russian authorities, the “IOC had yet to comprehensively address human rights concerns in Sochi.”