The Next Two World Cups Could Be Accomplished Under Horrendous Labor Conditions

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko speaks in front of an image of FIFA president Sepp Blatter (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A new proposal from a member of the Russian government’s ruling party would allow the country to use prison labor to help prepare for its hosting of the 2018 World Cup.

The plan presented by lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein would send prison workers to factories to produce goods for the construction of World Cup stadiums and other projects, the Associated Press reported. The prisoners would not work directly on World Cup sites, but would instead help supply materials internally — a priority for Russia as its falling currency has driven up the cost of imported goods and made its bid more expensive than planned.

The use of prison labor in Russia has received renewed scrutiny since Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the Pussy Riot band, went on a hunger strike in 2013 to protest forced labor and conditions inside the nation’s prisons. The Economist’s investigation of Russian prison colonies found that as many as 43 percent of men and 60 percent of women in such prisons work, and upon her release, Tolokonnikova said that she worked up to 16 hours a day. A human rights investigation of her prison, meanwhile, found that workers rarely receive days off and that conditions are akin to “slave labor.”

The work becomes even more intense when there are “special orders” — like, perhaps, with deadlines for a major international soccer competition approaching — according to former inmates.

“When there were special orders, we had to work more than usual,” one inmate told Radio Free Europe last year. “For instance, from four in the afternoon until five or six in the morning. The shop worked practically around the clock.”

Khinshtein told the AP that the workers would be paid as much as $300 per month, but in the past, prison laborers have not been compensated fairly. According to RFE’s investigation, prison workers make roughly $5.50 per day, far below national standards. That figure is based on government statistics, but workers told the network that they were paid only a fraction of what they had actually earned.

Russia’s plans create even more questions for FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, given the problems workers are already facing on construction projects in Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup. International labor groups have called attention to inhumane working conditions that border on “modern slavery” there, and estimates based on available figures say that more than 4,000 workers could die on World-Cup related projects in the Gulf state. Qatar has announced labor reforms but has made little progress, according to international activists, and FIFA president Sepp Blatter has deflected criticism about the Qatari World Cup by assigning blame to companies that hire those workers.

Khinshtein told the AP his plan would be submitted to the Russian parliament soon, and if it passes, FIFA will hold each of its next two World Cups under the cloud of working conditions that have been likened to slavery. That will only add to already-existing criticism of corruption around both bids and larger human rights questions — including anti-gay laws and the imprisonment of journalists — in both countries. Openly gay former NBA player Jason Collins said this week that FIFA should not “give them the games, period, until they change their laws.” Qatar’s labor problems, meanwhile, have prompted some FIFA sponsors, including Continental Tires, Johnson & Johnson, and Sony, to pull their sponsorships of the upcoming tournaments. But FIFA’s biggest sponsors — including Visa and Coca-Cola — have only issued tepid statements that say they are “concerned” about labor abuses but promise nothing in the way of action.