CREDIT: AP Photo/Ignat Kozlov
As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, kick off this week, many Central Asian migrant workers who transformed the small resort town into a lavish, international winter sports hub will not be around to celebrate. Over the course of seven years of construction, at least 700 workers were not paid, with hundreds expelled to their home countries.
Overall since 2009, at least 16,000 migrant workers from Serbia, Bosnia, and Central Asian countries have made the journey to take on construction jobs with the prospect of making more money in two months than most make in a year. But at least 700 laborers have not been paid and more than 100 ethnic Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were deported back to their home countries after they finished their job. Some even fled the country following work-site raids, according to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. After an employment agency promised $12.25 per hour to a Serbian migrant, he wound up being paid about one-sixth of his expected $6,155 income. Agents from Russia’s Federal Migration Service soon came in to detain as many as 30 workers. Still others were poorly paid, detained, and put in prisons before being helped out by government embassies. But the majority of migrant workers were lured by high wages, and ultimately given far less than promised. When one migrant complained about the wage differential, a Russian man threatened him with a gun. Other migrants on 30-day tourist visas were told to cross dangerous borders and “return in order to renew the permit.”
Repeated calls by Human Rights Watch (HRW) to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Russian government to stop migrant abuse prompted Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak to announce in a November 2013 meeting with President Vladimir Putin that Russia would “assist in the removal of nonresident workers and settle accounts with them.” Some migrant workers at 13 companies are finally receiving $7.9 million in back payments this week.
Even though Russian officials have agreed to settle back pay issues, it’s already too late for many migrant workers who are no longer in the country. Workers who complained about their situations were expelled from Russia (a fate journalists who documented the abuse and corruption also faced).
In a scathing 2013 HRW report, researchers found consistent migrant abuse and wage theft during the past six years of Olympics-related construction projects. Employers often underpaid workers, requiring them to work 12-hour shifts with few days off, and took away passports and work permits — without such documentation, migrant workers are effectively undocumented and are unable to access other employment opportunities and health care. Workers with low-wage jobs were typically paid between 55 to 80 rubles (U.S. $1.59 to $2.31) an hour.
One worker from Uzbekistan said that he was offered a job that paid $770 a month, but that he had worked for three months for “nothing but promises.” Some said that their first month’s wages were withheld until employers determined the job had been completed while first payments were received only after working for two months.
Olympic officials and international businesses are often complicit in the mistreatment of migrant workers. As in the case of Sochi, Olympic officials were apparently satisfied after a Russian state prosecutor’s office determined that the late payment of salaries to some 50 migrant workers was resolved at a construction company. And even though international companies have agreed to comply with employment standards as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles On Business and Human Rights, the cycle of migrant worker abuse is an ongoing issue at large construction projects like the Olympics.
At the 2012 London Summer Olympics, migrant workers lived in temporary trailers that some described as “slums.” They were vulnerable to long working hours and low wages. At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics where migrant workers from other parts of China made up nearly 90 percent of Beijing’s construction workforce, wages were withheld for up to a year, then offered as “a lump sum payment which is considerably below the agreed wage rate and Beijing’s minimum wage rate. Some employers refuse to pay anything at all.” One migrant construction worker was murdered for striking, while still others perished. At the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, nearly 40 migrant workers died at construction sites due to unsafe conditions. And abuse is also not just rampant at the Olympics, but at other sporting events as well — an estimated 4,000 workers will die while building stadiums by the beginning of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.