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Worker abuse revealed ahead of Sochi Games

One year before the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, construction of the Fisht Olympic stadium is under way Keystone

Migrant workers building Russian Olympic venues face troubling abuses, says a Human Rights Watch report. A Basel-based firm and the Lausanne-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) are among the bodies held responsible for oversight.

According to the report, which was based on interviews with 66 migrant workers on Olympic construction sites in Sochi, some workers had their passports confiscated, were denied their wages and were forced to work 12-hour days with little time off.

Pay was reported to be very low, at 50 to 80 rubles (SFr1.66-2.42) per hour. Several men employed to work on the Central Olympic Stadium told Human Rights Watch that their employer-provided accommodations and meals were unsatisfactory and that overcrowding was common.

“In this [single-family] house there are about 200 people. Fourteen men live in one six-by-six [36-square-metre] room,” one worker said.

The report’s interview subjects came from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, and a few came from within Russia.

Jane Buchanan, who is the report’s author and the Human Rights Watch associate director for Europe and central Asia, told that her organisation began interviewing workers in 2009 after finding similar abuses in Beijing in 2008 and after having published a report on migrant worker conditions across Russia.

“We were already very well aware of the types of abuses that might take place on major construction sites, and with that in mind, we set out to interview people to see whether those things took place in Sochi as well,” Buchanan said. “And we did find it.”

Overseers respond

As part of the report, the Geneva-based Human Rights Watch contacted several companies and contractors overseeing construction operations in Sochi for their responses. In addition to the Basel-based Botta Management Group, which is the project manager for the Central Olympic Stadium, Human Rights Watch named the IOC, the Russian State Corporation for Construction of Olympic Venues (Olympstroy) and several other contracting and construction firms, and made recommendations as to how they might improve conditions for the workers.

According to Buchanan, none of the companies contacted responded to the report’s specific allegations.

“They all made fairly general statements about their commitment to labour protection, guaranteed wages and the like,” she said. “There’s certainly a long way to go. At the same time, a lot of these companies recognise that they can’t ignore these issues and that there can be and have been investigations that have uncovered some of these abuses on their sites, so we hope that this would be the first step toward getting some change.”

The Botta Management Group told in a statement that the firm is only involved in work on the Central Olympic Stadium, where all necessary passport and labour contract checks, as well as building site inspections, were carried out regularly.

“This means that work on this site is very closely monitored, also by the respective authorities overseeing compliance with labour laws and related provisions,” a company spokesperson stated. “In particular, information stands were set up advising workers of their rights in their respective language, with additionally interpreters at hand to assist. There is also a hotline for workers to call in case of issues.”

The IOC’s role

Buchanan told that the IOC responded to her report’s charges primarily by sharing information about abuse cases provided by Russian authorities. However, she says that’s not enough.

“We really feel that there is a bigger role for the IOC here and that it’s not sufficient to just rely on what’s very general information from the authorities, even though we gave them very specific allegations of what was happening on which sites. We have every expectation and hope that the IOC would do more.”

The IOC told in a statement that it has a “long-standing commitment” to following up on cases of mistreatment and abuse.

“We were contacted by Human Rights Watch last November on the issue of migrant workers,” an IOC spokesperson said. “After bringing the matter to the attention of the organising committee, we provided Human Rights Watch with information we had received from Olympstroy, but asked [Human Rights Watch] for more details on the specific cases they had raised.”

“While it is never easy dealing with anonymous allegations, we can confirm that Olympstroy has carried out more than 1,300 work inspections since 2011 and that a small number of cases regarding wage irregularities were identified and dealt with satisfactorily,” the IOC said.

Buchanan says that in the end, responsibility for ensuring abuses don’t happen at Olympic sites can’t come down to a single monitoring organisation or overseer.

“The authorities, the legal inspectors, they absolutely have to be in there finding people, prosecuting people in cases of serious abuse,” she said.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR