Construction workers on the St. Petersburg Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia that will host 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2018 FIFA World Cup matches. October 3, 2016. 

© 2016 Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

(Moscow) – Construction workers building stadiums for Russia to host the FIFA 2017 Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup face exploitation and labor abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. FIFA, the worldwide football association, has yet to fully deliver on its commitments to conduct effective monitoring of labor conditions ahead of the Confederations Cup and World Cup, Human Rights Watch said.

“FIFA’s promise to make human rights a centerpiece of its global operations has been put to the test in Russia, and FIFA is coming up short,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Construction workers on World Cup stadiums face exploitation and abuse, and FIFA has not yet shown that it can effectively monitor, prevent, and remedy these issues.”

The World Cup is the world’s premier football tournament. Russia will host eight international football teams, including its own, at the Confederations Cup from June 17 to July 2, 2017, in four cities. The Confederations Cup also marks the one-year countdown to the 2018 World Cup, which will run from June 14 to July 15, 2018, with 32 teams playing in 12 stadiums in 11 Russian cities.

The 34-page report “Red Card: Exploitation of Construction Workers on World Cup Sites in Russia,” documents how workers on six World Cup stadium construction sites faced unpaid wages either in full or part, several months’ delays in payment of wages, work in temperatures as cold as -25 degrees Celsius without sufficient protections, and employers’ failure to provide work contracts required for legal employment.

Interview: Why World Cup Rights Work in Russia Is No Game

Interview: Why World Cup Rights Work in Russia Is No Game

While investigating the exploitation of workers in Russia building stadiums for the 2018 World Cup, Human Rights Watch consultant Semyon Simonov was detained by Russian police and unidentified security forces. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed Russian nationals, including some who had migrated internally for jobs on World Cup construction, as well as foreign migrant workers, including from Central Asian countries, Belarus, and Ukraine.

At least 17 workers have died on World Cup stadium sites, according to the Building and Wood Workers’ International global union. Workers on several stadiums have organized strikes repeatedly to protest non-payment of wages and other labor abuses. International media have published credible reports about North Korean workers employed on the World Cup Stadium in St. Petersburg in 2016 working long hours with few days off and compelled to send wages to the North Korean government. FIFA states that the workers are no longer working at the St. Petersburg or other World Cup stadiums, but publicized no information about steps taken to protect or assist these workers.

Workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch consistently said that they were afraid to speak out about abuses, fearing reprisals from their employers.

Russian authorities detained a Human Rights Watch researcher seeking to interview construction workers outside the World Cup stadium in the southern Russian city of Volgograd in April 2017. Police and a man in street clothes who appeared to be a security service agent addressed the researcher by name, suggesting that officials were surveilling him. Police questioned the researcher for over three hours, threatened him, and eventually released him without charge.

In Kaliningrad, workers told Human Rights Watch that in September 2015, they tried to approach a delegation of FIFA and Russian officials to raise concerns about wage delays. Security guards surrounded the delegation and refused to allow the workers to get near them to speak. According to the workers, some migrant workers working at the site were forced to remain in their dormitories near the site during the delegation’s visit. The workers did not indicate who ordered the migrant workers to remain there.

“The apparent surveillance and detention of a Human Rights Watch researcher and pressure on workers not to report abuses suggests that those responsible for labor conditions on World Cup sites have something to hide,” Buchanan said. “Football fans, players, coaches, and others have a right to know who’s building the World Cup stadiums and under what conditions. Transparency is key to any serious human rights protection.”

In May 2016, FIFA announced that for the first time, it was organizing a system, together with the Russian authorities, to monitor labor conditions at stadiums being built or renovated for the 2018 World Cup. In response to Human Rights Watch’s inquiries, on June 8, 2017, FIFA sent Human Rights Watch a letter describing this labor monitoring system. The letter states that FIFA conducted dozens of inspections on World Cup stadiums. It included two examples in which FIFA said it resolved issues revealed by the monitoring process. FIFA has otherwise not published comprehensive details on the kinds of labor abuses inspectors found; on which stadium sites they found violations and when; specific actions FIFA or others took in response; or concrete outcomes for workers.

FIFA’s program began well after much World Cup construction was underway and covers only stadiums and no other World Cup infrastructure construction.

Since 2015, FIFA has pledged to improve human rights protections in conjunction with hosting of World Cup events.

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, business entities, including FIFA, have responsibilities to respect human rights, avoid complicity in abuses, and ensure that any abuses that occur despite these efforts are adequately remedied. The Guiding Principles also call on private enterprises to ensure transparency as part of a credible response to human rights concerns.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Russia is a party, recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work.” Russia is also party to numerous International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, including related to wages and occupational health and safety.

“FIFA and the Russian government took a notable step in organizing labor monitoring on World Cup stadiums, but to be credible, FIFA needs to make public detailed information about its inspections, what inspectors have found, and the actual results, if any, for workers,” Buchanan said. “There could not be a better time for FIFA to move away from the secrecy that has plagued its operations and to show it can achieve meaningful protections for workers, and be transparent and accountable.”