2014 will be a big year for international sports. Sochi, Russia will host the Winter Olympic Games in Febrary 2013. Just a few months later, football powerhouse Brazil will host the summer 2014 FIFA World Cup. Both countries are also continuing preparations beyond 2014, Brazil for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics and Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
Brazil’s upcoming big events have already pushed the government into preemptive actions including a May 2013 military crackdown operation on drug trafficking and illegal immigration of Haitians, Bangladeshis and others through regional neighbors including Peru and Guyana. And anti-trafficking advocates in Brazil and abroad are raising concerns about a spike in child sexual exploitation that might coincide with the month-long World Cup tournament. Coastal cities and known sex tourism hot spots Fortaleza and Recife are among the twelve cities set to host matches. Similar concerns are regularly raised by U.S.-based advocates in the run-up to major national sporting events including the National Football League’s Superbowl championship. However, according to trafficking experts and journalists alike, reports of sporting event-related spikes in sex trafficking are frequently unsubstantiated and misleading.
Anti-trafficking and human rights activists would do well to pay attention to another aspect of major sporting events: construction. Olympics-related construction practices have received unprecedented scrutiny since 2008, when Beijing, China hosted the Summer Olympics. Human rights abuses related to Olympic preparations included labor exploitation (wage theft, unsafe working and living conditions) and a lack of access to state-guaranteed social services that affected migrant workers in particular.
Last month, Russia was downgraded to the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report Tier 2 “Watch List,” in part due to State Department concerns that local Sochi officials and the Kremlin have turned a blind eye to the explicit exploitation of Central Asian guest workers in the construction of sporting venues. A Human Rights Watch report released last year reported that tens of thousands of workers had been cheated of wages or even denied wages “for weeks or months.” Many worked long hours without weekends or days off, had their passports confiscated, and were denied employment contracts. HRW reported one instance in which 200 workers lived “in one single-family home.”
The links between major sporting events and human trafficking are complex. Advocates and researchers alike should take advantage of 2014′s big events as opportunities for the kinds of intelligent awareness-raising and study that may inform future trafficking prevention efforts in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar, a newcomer in the world of major international events now preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.