(Lausanne) – Migrant workers building sites and infrastructure for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, have been cheated and exploited. With exactly one year to go before the Winter Olympics, Russia and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should make rigorous monitoring of workers’ rights on Olympic construction sites a top priority to prevent further abuses.
The 67-page report, “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” documents exploitation of migrant workers on key Olympic sites, including the Central Olympic Stadium, the Main Olympic Village, and the Main Media Center. Workers told Human Rights Watch that some employers cheated workers out of wages, required them to work 12-hour shifts with few days off, and confiscated passports and work permits, apparently to coerce workers to remain in exploitative jobs.
“Like the athletes competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia has big hopes and dreams for its performance in Sochi as the host,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But exploiting workers is a victory for no one, and Russia urgently needs to change course.”
In preparation for the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in February and March 2014, Russia has radically transformed the Black Sea coast resort town of Sochi and nearby Caucasus Mountains by building state-of-the-art sports venues, lavish hotels, and ultra-modern transportation and telecommunications systems. Russian officials see the area becoming “a premier winter sports destination.” The large number of construction projects in Sochi has required an influx of tens of thousands of workers, including over 16,000 migrant workers from outside of Russia.
Human Rights Watch’s report is based on interviews with 66 migrant workers employed on Olympic and other construction sites in Sochi from 2009 through 2012. The workers came from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. Nearly all workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Sochi worked in low-wage, low-skill jobs such as odd-jobs workers, carpenters, welders, or steel fitters. They reported typical earnings of between 55 and 80 rubles (US$1.80 to $2.60) an hour.
Workers consistently reported that employers failed to pay full wages and in some cases failed to pay workers at all. A group of workers employed on the Main Media Center, the central hub for journalists covering the Olympics, worked for months without wages, hoping to be paid. One worker from Uzbekistan, “Omurbek,” said that in December 2011 a subcontractor on the site offered him a job paying $770 per month.
“I worked for almost three months … for nothing. Nothing but promises, promises from them,” Omurbek told Human Rights Watch.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch, a subcontractor for the Main Media Center project who the workers said hired them, claimed that its workers are paid on time and in full.
Numerous workers on the Central Olympic Stadium site and on the Main Olympic Village site interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that employers withheld the first month’s wages. Workers received their first payment only after working for two months, and were told they would get the first month’s wages only after the employer decided they had completed the job. If they quit or were fired, they would not recover the first month’s wages.
In letters to Human Rights Watch, the general contractor for the Central Stadium, Engeocom, and the project manager, Botta Management Group, denied the workers’ allegations after Human Rights Watch wrote to them.
All migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Sochi said that they worked long hours with very few days off. Work sites maintained a system of two 12-hour shifts. Workers most often said they worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., with a one-hour break for meals and for changing into and out of work gear. They typically worked seven days a week, with just one day off every two weeks, for long stretches. Russian law specifies a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, and at least one day off per week.
Human Rights Watch also documented abuses on a hotel complex that will accommodate thousands of journalists covering the Olympics. Two men who had been on the site for nearly three months said they came to Sochi from Ukraine in March 2012 with 13 other workers. They were promised $1,500 per month, as well as free accommodations and food. The workers did not receive employment contracts. The men worked for weeks without days off and were not paid the promised wages.
The foreman of the group, “Viktor,” said they continued working because their employer repeatedly promised to pay them.
“We will work until tomorrow and then see,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Each day, we will work until tomorrow, hoping to be paid.” After more than two months of work, each of the workers received only around $420, a fraction of what they had been promised. All of the workers except one returned to Ukraine in May 2012.
The company the workers said they worked for, MonArch, a Russian construction company, wrote to Human Rights Watch in December 2012 and said it has “strict rules about the hiring … of workers,” and that these workers may have been hired by one of MonArch’s subcontractors. MonArch denied responsibility for the actions of its subcontractors.
“Athletes, journalists, and Olympic ticket holders in Sochi will watch the 2014 Winter Games in iconic modern sports venues, broadcast centers, and hotels,” Buchanan said. “But many migrant workers have toiled in exploitative, abusive conditions to build these shimmering façades and luxurious interiors.”
Although most migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch signed employment contracts, most were not given copies. In some cases, workers were not given contracts at all.
In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia. Cases like this highlight the vulnerable situation for migrant workers in Russia, particularly those without contracts to document their employment, Human Rights Watch said.
Accommodations and housing are typically provided to the workers as a component of their compensation. But the housing was frequently overcrowded, and the meals were insufficient to sustain workers, given their long hours and demanding work, Human Rights Watch found. Human Rights Watch researchers looked at housing provided to the workers and found that in some cases up to 200 workers lived in very cramped conditions in a single family home. Workers interviewed also described similarly overcrowded conditions in worker barracks.
The Russian authorities, including the State Corporation Olympstroy, which is responsible for delivering hundreds of Olympics-related structures and infrastructure projects, have obligations under national and international law to ensure labor protections. Olympstroy has made a public commitment to protect labor rights on sites falling within the Olympic program and requires contractors engaged in Olympic construction to respect Russian labor law. Olympstroy established an internal department to cooperate with the regional labor inspectorate to monitor workers’ rights on sites that fall within the Olympic program.
Private companies managing and building these sites also have responsibilities to ensure that they respect the workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said. They should undertake due diligence to identify and prevent human rights problems both in regard to their own practices and the practices of their subcontractors.
“Olympstroy has made some important public commitments, but the patterns of abuse on Olympic sites strongly suggest an inability or unwillingness to take all the steps necessary to guarantee basic rights for migrant workers,” Buchanan said. “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.”
The IOC, which coordinates the Games, sees them as a “force for good” and includes promoting the Olympic ideal of human dignity among its priorities. Since 2009, the IOC has taken its responsibility to preserve human dignity to include a commitment to intervene at the level of a host country’s Olympic Games Organizing Committee in the event of serious abuse. This commitment includes intervening to end abuses against migrant workers at Olympic construction sites. However, the IOC has failed to address protection of workers’ rights in Sochi comprehensively, Human Rights Watch said.
In view of the documented, persistent human rights concerns that arise in the context of Olympic preparations, Human Rights Watch calls on the IOC to establish a standing committee on human rights that would engage with host countries to set, monitor, and enforce human rights commitments.
“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,” Buchanan said. “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.”