(Moscow) – The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has taken important steps to persuade the Russiangovernment to investigate persistent claims of nonpayment of wages to workers who helped build Olympicvenues and infrastructure.
The IOC efforts resulted in government pledges that the equivalent of US$8.3 million would be paid in wage arrears. However, the Migration and Law Network, a program run by the Russian human rights organization Memorial, said that it had received complaints from approximately 700 workers that they still had not been paid. Many of the 700 were on a list of 600 workers who had filed complaints about wage arrears and other abuses that the Migration and Law Network and Human Rights Watch shared with the IOC in October 2013. The agreement also came too late to benefit many workers who had faced similar abuses since Russia began preparing to host the Olympics, Human Rights Watch said. The Sochi Winter Olympic Games began on February 7, 2014.
“The exploitation of migrant workers casts a shadow on the Sochi Games’ glittering facade,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We’re glad the IOC has pressed the Russian government to finally take action, but we’re still concerned about the workers who weren’t paid.”
In a February 9 letterto Human Rights Watch, the IOC confirmed that the Russian government had undertaken inspections and uncovered massive wage arrears for many workers on Olympic sites. The letter also responded to Human Rights Watch’s concerns about the village of Akhshtyr, which has had no running water for five years and has been effectively cut off from the rest of Sochi due to Olympic construction, and about the authorities’ refusal to relocate several dozen residents in another location whose homes were made uninhabitable by Olympic preparations.
Starting in 2008, Human Rights Watch has regularly raised concerns with the IOC about abuses linked to the Russian government’s preparations to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Human Rights Watch has conducted extensive research in Sochi since 2009, documenting cases of forced evictions without fair compensation, threats and arrests of journalists and civil society activists, including those documenting environmental damage caused by the Olympics, and exploitation of migrant workers on Olympic venues and other construction sites.
In a February 2013 report, Human Rights Watch exposed a pattern of abuse across many major Olympic sites, including the Fisht Stadium, the Main Media Center, accommodations for journalists, and the Olympic Village. Abuses included:
- Nonpayment of wages or excessive delays in payment of wages;
- Employers’ failure to provide written employment contracts or copies of contracts;
- Excessive working hours, such as 12-hour shifts without payment of overtime;
- Overcrowded employer-provided housing and inadequate employer-provided meals; and
- Illegal withholding of passports and other identity documents.
The report listed numerous companies implicated in the abuse or responsible for construction sites on which abuses took place. In its public response to the report, the IOC claimed that Human Rights Watch’s information was not sufficiently detailed for the IOC or the Russian authorities to act on.
Human Rights Watch informed the IOC about abuses linked to Russia’s hosting of the games because the IOC had made a commitmentto take up with host countries evidence it received of abuses linked to Olympics preparations. While the IOC’s late action is important, more workers would have benefited if it had acted sooner, Human Rights Watch said.
The Migration and Law Network’s representative in Sochi, Semyon Simonov, told Human Rights Watch he has received complaints from 700 workers, many of whom were on the list of 600 given to the IOC in October, who have not received their back pay. Most have returned to their home countries.
“It was clear as early as 2009 that the Russian authorities weren’t honoring all of their responsibilities to workers in Sochi,” Buchanan said. “The IOC should have consistently reminded them, starting five years ago, of their obligations as Olympics host and pressed for concrete actions.”
IOC Response on Hardships Imposed on Residents by Olympics Construction
As for the village of Akhshtyr, Human Rights Watch has documented human rights concerns there and relayed them directly to the IOC since 2009. In September 2013, Human Rights Watch brought IOC officials to Akhshtyr to meet villagers and hear firsthand about their Olympics-related hardships.
Human Rights Watch repeatedly raised concerns about the village in letters to the IOC, in particular the loss of the village’s drinking water supply as a result of Olympics construction. On two occasions, the IOC wrote to Human Rights Watch stating that the situation had been resolved or would soon be resolved based on assurances from the Russian authorities. The February IOC letter says that the authorities have once again promised to provide the village with reliable drinking water – in March.
“Akhshtyr residents have been suffering for years without a reliable source of drinking water,” Buchanan said. “While the IOC’s latest announcement gives renewed hope that the village will finally get its drinking water back, we hope the IOC is prepared to act swiftly if there is still no water in Akhshtyr by March.”
Human Rights Watch repeatedly urgedthe IOC to press the local authorities to offer fair compensation or relocate about 40 residents whose apartments were made uninhabitable by construction of a highway, part of the Olympics infrastructure. The apartments are in a barracks-style building that stands several meters from the new highway, just north of the Olympic Park. In November 2010, local officials told residents they would be either offered monetary compensation or resettled, but three months later officialssaid that their homes would not be expropriated, claiming that the building did not interfere with Olympics construction.
However, the highway construction caused flooding, destroyed all driveways and other access points to the building, and imposed other significant hardships. Residents won a lawsuit to require the construction company to restore the driveway – a development noted in the IOC letter – but the company has refused to honor the court ruling.
Human Rights Watch said the driveway was a side issue, however. The families need to be relocated and compensated fairly for the value of their homes since it was Olympics construction that made their homes uninhabitable.
“It’s up to the IOC to make sure the local authorities address the situation of the families whose homes were made unlivable by Olympics construction so the families can live in dignity,” Buchanan said.
IOC Reforms Urgently Needed to Prevent Future Abuses
The IOC’s core mission is to promote Olympic values throughout the world and to lead the Olympic Movement. According to the Olympic Charter, the IOC’s role includes: to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement, to protect press freedom, and to promote a positive legacy to host cities and host countries. The Olympic Charter’s core principles also include “human dignity.” In all of these areas, the Russian government’s record in Sochi has been abysmal, Human Rights Watch said.
In the run-up to the Olympics, the Russian authorities silenced numerous criticsof problems linked to preparations for the games, including Evgeniy Vitishko, a member of the environmental watchdog group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, who was sentencedto 15 days’ detention on February 3 for allegedly swearing in a public place. On February 7, 2014, the day of the Sochi Games’ opening ceremony, four peaceful lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists were detained in St. Petersburg merely for seeking to display a banner reaffirming the nondiscrimination principle enshrined in the Olympic Charter, and ten were detained on Moscow’s Red Square for singing Russia’s national anthem while waving rainbow flags. All were released. The IOC should affirm the right to peacefully protest Olympics-linked human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.
The lesson from Sochi and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where similar abuses occurred, is that awarding the Olympic Games to a country with a poor record on human rights and rule of law carries a strong risk that Olympic preparations will be a source of serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
To prevent further abuses, Human Rights Watch proposes concrete human rights reformsto the Olympic Charter, as well as requirements for the IOC to write human rights guarantees into the Host City Contracts and monitor implementation of those guarantees.