HRW Statement to Sports Committee Hearing, German Bundestag, 6 June 2018

By Hugh Williamson, ECA Director, Human Rights Watch

Thank you for the invitation.

“The employers threaten us that if we complain they will fire us without any payment at all and may even call in the police”.

Those are the words of a worker who helped build the Rostov stadium in southern Russia, where Brazil among other teams will be playing. The worker didn’t want us to publish his name, again for fear of being dismissed.

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of workers at 6 of the 12 stadium construction sites in 2016 and 2017. Some workers were Russian but many were migrants from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, such as Belarus, Central Asia and Ukraine.

Intimidation as experienced by this worker, was a major problem but not the only one. Working conditions were severe. For instance, some workers had to weld and hammer at great heights, often without safety equipment. Others had to work in freezing temperatures - -25 C – without proper protection. At least 21 workers died from work accidents on world cup construction sites, according to the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), an international trade union.

Another problem we found was the refusal of many of the Russian construction companies to abide by Russian laws that require them to provide employment contracts and pay proper wages. Some workers received contracts late – others not at all. One Uzbek worker, also in Rostov, told us he and his 500 colleagues had not been paid for 3 months.

We raised concern around a large group of North Korean workers who, according to reports we received, were employed building the St Petersburg stadium under awful conditions.

One indicator of the atmosphere on some of the building sites – HRW’s own consultant was detained for several hours in April 2017 in Volgograd while interviewing workers, and accused of seeking to “disrupt the World Cup”. The world cup is taking place in a wider human rights context, in which we see the worst human rights crackdown in the country in a generation.

What has happened since we published our findings a year ago?

We have no confirmation from Russian authorities that they have taken steps to rectify the problems we and others have highlighted.

We sent the findings to FIFA and the DFB. We have had a critical but constructive dialogue with both organisations for several years and the issue of working conditions on Russian building sites fits this pattern.

We raised several specific issues with FIFA and urged the DFB to use its influence with FIFA too. In May 2016 FIFA established its own monitoring program of labour conditions on building sites. It commissioned a local auditing company to monitor building sites based on Russian and ILO standards. The BWI trade union was asked to join and agreed.

It’s a sign of progress that FIFA has started this monitoring and that – according to FIFA – each visit is followed by an internal report to the companies involved, pointing to areas of concern.

But there are shortcomings too – as we have told FIFA. To name just a few – the visits are announced in advance, giving companies time to hide problems; FIFA has published very little information on the results of the monitoring, so no one knows what abuses they found or – crucially – whether companies and Russian authorities have done something to deal with them. FIFA needs to be more transparent!

HRW continues to raise our concerns with FIFA and others, on labour issues but also on other World Cup related human rights issues, such as the freedom for reporters to report on what they like, for people in Russia to be able to protest near stadiums during the tournament if they like, and for Oyub Titiev, Memorial’s director in Chechnya to be released from prison in Chechnya before Egypt start playing their matches – Egypt has its training camp in Chechnya.

I would be happy to elaborate on any aspects. To close, we value our co-operation with the Bundestag on sports and human rights. I recall positive steps the Bundestag took in 2015 when it adopted a cross party resolution on human rights in Azerbaijan, in the context of the European Games in Baku that month.

Here are two suggestions for action by MPs and the Bundestag on the current issues under discussion:

  • Send a signal from the Bundestag that the World Cup is not a human rights-free zone! Raise your voice in Germany, and whenever you have meetings with Russian officials, here or in Russia. We should enjoy the tournament but not at the expense of human rights.  
  • And call on FIFA to make sure words become actions. Its human rights policy, adopted last year is a good start, its labour monitoring programme is a useful step, its new policy on the rights of journalists and human rights defenders is important. But FIFA has only come this far because of pressure from yourselves, ourselves and others. We need to keep the pressure on to make sure human rights conditions linked to FIFA’s mandate actually improve, in Russia, Qatar and at other major sporting events in future.

Thank you for your attention.