Don’t Forget The Construction Workers Who Died Making The Rio Olympics Happen

Construction workers walk inside Olympic Park as preparations take place for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 27, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PATRICK SEMANSKY, THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS
Construction workers walk inside Olympic Park as preparations take place for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 27, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PATRICK SEMANSKY, THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS

This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.

As the 2016 Olympic Games begin Friday, construction workers are still putting the finishing touches on several Olympics sites, including the Olympic Village, which began receiving athletes last week. The final rush to deliver on venues has added pressure to the already precarious working conditions observed at construction sites.

Eleven workers have died on the job during construction for the Rio Olympics since January 2013 — and there’s no sign conditions improved in the last few days.

“It’s a shocking number of deaths,” Cynthia Lopes, a public prosecutor at the state of Rio de Janeiro’s labor courts, told ThinkProgress. “The Brazilian construction industry has a bad record when it comes to health and safety, but when you have a fixed deadline to deliver projects, as is the case with the Olympics, things get even worse.”

For comparison’s sake, eight workers died during the preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a countrywide effort that involved major construction projects in 12 cities. There were no reported deaths in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics in London, and the Chinese government admitted to six deaths during the preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The preparation for the Olympics has been a scandal when it comes to the health and safety of workers.

“These are deaths that could have easily been avoided,” Robson Leite, who served as Superintendent at the Ministry of Labor in Rio until May of this year, told ThinkProgress. “The preparation for the Olympics has been a scandal when it comes to the health and safety of workers.”

Last week, an audit by the Ministry of Labor at the site of the Olympic Village revealed a myriad of labor infractions that have become all too common during the preparation for the Games. Workers reported pulling shifts that were in gross excess of the maximum 10 hours stipulated by law. There was a lack of required safety equipment at the site, and over 600 workers had been hired informally.

“These employees have no official papers and are overworked. They are pulling 23-hour shifts. This greatly increases the risk of accidents,” Hercules Terra, an auditor for the Ministry of Labor told the press last Wednesday. “This situation is a ticking time bomb.”

Official numbers show that the Ministry of Labor conducted 260 inspections or audits between January of 2013 and March of this year, finding 1,675 infractions and issuing 38 temporary suspensions on construction. The infractions are varied, including insufficient training for workers, a lack of basic safety equipment, excessive working hours, insufficient downtime between shifts, and even a lack of drinking water for workers.

“As the deadline to deliver the projects draws closer, companies become even more negligent,” said Leite. “We would order the suspension of a part of a project and a week later workers would be back at it, committing the same infractions,” he said. “There was one instance in which we ordered the suspension of a project, the track-cycling venue, and were overruled by the mayor’s office.”

One of the factors that make accountability and the enforcement of regulation so difficult is the excessive use of outsourcing by the main companies heading the projects. “We go to investigate a complaint and there are maybe 50 companies working in one site,” said Lopes. “There is a lack of integration.”

#Rio2016: The Complete RoundupThinkProgress’ Olympics Coverage.thinkprogress.orgIn August of last year, 11 migrant workers from several impoverished Brazilian states were found to be living in conditions that constitute as slavery under Brazilian law. They were hired by Brasil Global, a company that was contracted by the construction giant Odebrecht to work in the site of the Olympic Village. The migrant workers were prompted to come to Rio with promises of housing, board, and re-imbursement of airfare, but the Ministry of Labor found all 11 of them living in unsanitary conditions, crammed into tight quarters in Beira Rio, a slum in the Recreio neighborhood of Rio. The housing provided by Brasil Global reportedly lacked a working toilet and was infested with rats and cockroaches. Some workers preferred sleeping outside the lodgings. At one point, the company stopped paying rent and providing food for the workers.

This is one of the few cases in which damages will actually be sought in civil court. In the vast majority of cases, the only tools that the Ministry of Labor and public prosecutors use to enforce regulations are fines and temporary suspensions on construction, but these seem to have little to no effect on the long-term behavior of offending companies. Public prosecutors usually decide on the value of fines in arbitration.

“The construction companies think of fines as an expense,” said Leite.

Prosecutor Lopes agreed. “The fines tend to be small,” she said. “Companies pay them and then keep doing what they were doing.”

There are also indications that the regulatory apparatus is severely lacking in resources. Elaine Castilho, an auditor for the Ministry of Labor in Rio said in an interview in February of last year that because of a lack of cars and personnel, auditors can only do one inspection a day.

“In Rio there is also the problem of drug-trafficking gangs that control large sections of the city. We cannot inspect projects in certain neighborhoods because of security concerns for our auditors,” she added. “It’s sad that there are thousands and thousands of workers in in construction sites that we cannot audit.”

With the Olympics’ openings ceremony Friday, it is worth remembering the high cost of the Games was not just in money — but in workers’ rights, and lives, as well.