If the Olympic Games have stood historically for warm and fuzzy shared values among diverse nations and peoples, they are also increasingly illustrative of much darker global realities—corruption and unbridled political power, the ebb and flow of clean and dirty capital, and the supply chains of international human trafficking.
Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), which advocates for the rights of construction workers around the world, has world-class sporting events on their radar. They lead a project called Campanha pelo Trabalho Decente (“Campaign for Decent Work”), which seeks to improve labor conditions in 2014 World Cup host country Brazil and occasionally denounces instances of worker exploitation and “trafficking.” They are already gearing up for the 2022 World Cup to be hosted by Qatar, lobbying FIFA to protect stadium construction workers in a region of the world where discrimination against guest workers is enshrined in national laws.
But BWI’s latest news coverage includes a story on Serbian construction workers, part of a force of tens of thousands of foreign laborers flown, trained, and trucked into southern Russia to build the groundwork for next month’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Tens of workers have contacted the Serbian chapter of BWI since returning to Serbia from stints as guest workers in Sochi. They allege that major Russian construction corportation, Novi Gorod (“New City”), practiced what amounts to trafficking by denying workers the legal documents required by guest workers, subjecting them to perpetually poor living conditions, paying only part of worker-earned salaries or, in some cases, none at all. While dangerous working conditions have led to workers’ deaths on-site, strikes calling for improved safety are forbidden upon threat, and workers wishing to return home early are not released from their contracts.
ASTRA, an anti-trafficking coalition dedicated to eradicating trafficking and related violence in Southeast Europe, relays direct testimony from several of these returned workers. According to one individual
We were given the airplane tickets and were very optimistic upon our departure. But everything went wrong as soon as we arrived to Sochi. They took away our passports at once and we were given the photocopy which was supposed to be used only for moving around in the town. Six of us were accommodated in small rooms; there were no signs of TV sets and refrigerators which were promised earlier. We worked 12 hours a day, except on Sundays when we used to work until lunchtime.
I lost my job and found the advertisement by chance. Everything seemed reliable and only in Sochi I realized that this mediator was an ordinary crook. Of course, nothing was like we agreed earlier. Since January 2010 the company ‘Novi Gorod’ for which we have been working, started to be late with payments and by December they owed an average of eight monthly salaries to each worker. They would only pay small advance payments and we never even got a medical insurance.
These classic tales of deception (the “fraud” in the U.S. definition of trafficking as “force, fraud, or coercion”) will sound familiar to trafficking survivors around the world, whether male or female, young or old, well-educated or illiterate, Serbian or Nigerian, working in construction, housekeeping, or the sex industry. An ASTRA representative relays that in Sochi, as elsewhere, allegations against corporations like Novi Gorod are most often traced to sub-contractors, much smaller companies that are slipperier, more difficult to hold accountable or even to track down for comment. Many have been founded by Serbian nationals, individuals with the ties to recruit in their home country and who must work closely with local officials and mafia to maintain their “privilege” of doing business.
One Dutch reporter- and filmmaker-team has done the kind of long-term observation and investigative reporting that can shed more light on such nuances. Rob Hornstra and Arnold Van Brugen covered the fascinating pre-Olympics saga for a period of five years. They begin their story in 2007, when Russia won their bid to host the 2014 Games in what was then a rustic seaside holiday town lacking a single Olympics- appropriate structure—arena, hotel, road, or otherwise. Hornstra and Van Brugen’s Sochi Project, a film showcasing the corruption and human rights violations the team documented, has been making the documentary film festival rounds since last fall and includes some focus on the plight of foreign guest workers in particular. (See also Andrea Rossini’s review for the Italian Balkan and Caucasus Observatory.) Human Rights Watch has also provided extensive, long-term coverage of all manner of abuses related to the Sochi Games, including the trafficking of migrant workers .
The U.S. Department of State’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, released in June, quoted a 2012 speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he condemned human trafficking—for the first time, at least publicly—calling for the prosecution of those “who organize flows of illegal immigrants, hire people without work permits and use them as slaves” (U.S. Department of State, 2013). High-level officials in the Putin administration have also spoken out in the lead-up to the Sochi Games. And just two weeks ago on January 10, 2014, Russian officials released their estimates of the total wages stolen from Sochi workers—amounting and vowed to compensate them. Human Rights Watch Russia’s Jane Buchanan urges the fulfillment of this promise but notes that many workers have already been expelled to make way for Olympic competitors and fans. She wonders what will happen to workers who lack documentation like work permits, visas, and employee contracts to support their claims.
The plight of Sochi workers seems destined to fade from public view soon, but it must be noted that Sochi is not necessarily the worst of Russia’s problems. Serbians, North Koreans, Central Asians, and even Russian nationals from the Caucasus region experience abuses across the country, from police harassment and detainment in Moscow to forced labor and isolation in Siberian logging camps. And with more world sporting events—including the 2018 World Cup in Russia—on the horizon, worker exploitation must be met with continued scrutiny, not just by human and labor rights groups but by countries who send their athletes and spectators to compete.