Two weeks ago we featured an extended post on Sochi, where a combination of corporate and government abuse of construction workers–particularly those hailing from outside Russia–has marred the run-up to the Olympic Winter Games.
Since then, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty released an article on the exploitation and subsequent deportation of Serbs working in Sochi, a case that we also covered here. The RFE/RL piece further emphasizes the very blurry lines between Sochi-based construction contractors, Russia’s Federal Migration Service, and other unidentifiable groups who worked together to accomplish combinations of the following:
- Bring foreign workers, from Southeastern Europe, Turkey, and (much more typically) from former Soviet Central Asia, albeit without work permit.
- Facilitate trips across the Russia-Georgia border (or, if you like, the Russia-Abkhazia border, as the former recognizes the latter as an independent nation) to provide a semblance of legality, ie, renewed passport stamps.
- Ensure workers’ ultimate arrest and expulsion by Russian authorities, often for lack of work permits or papers, and usually before said workers have been fully or even partially compensated for months of labor performed.
According to REF/RL, the Serbian Embassy recently arranged an emergency flight to evacuate 123 Serbian and Bosnia-Herzegovinian citizens after they were detained by migration authorities, and on January 23, Serbian police arrested Serbian national Dusan Kukic, the owner of a Cacak-based recruiting firm that arranged work for Serbs in Sochi. The fate of many thousands of Central Asian and other laborers remains less clear. An (English language) web search identified the February 2013 Human Rights Watch Report on labor exploitation at Sochi and few other sources.
Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), an organization working to raise worldwide awareness of labor abuses in Sochi, Brazil (in the lead-up to this summer’s World Cup football tournament) and Qatar (set to host the World Cup 2022), has published an official condemnation of the treatment of Sochi workers. BWI addresses both the Russian government and the International Olympics Committee, criticizing the subjection of workers to withheld pay and unsafe living and working conditions. (BWI estimates that 60 workers have died building Olympic venues in Sochi, while the Russian government’s official statistics are about half that).
BWI is worried about a Sochi “repeat” across the 11 Russian cities slated to host World Cup matches in 2018 (yes, that’s right, new event, same Russia). A Mother Jones article from October connected the dots between Russia, Brazil, and Qatar, and I’ve also written on the subject. It is now more apparent than ever that when it comes to major international sporting events, labor exploitation is just one of many human rights-related concerns that should raise eyebrows among athletes and fans alike.
(Thanks to Tos Añonuevo, BWI Education Secretary, for the link above.)
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.
Walk Free Foundation has published the Global Slavery Index for 2013. It ranks 162 countries according to the number of individuals trafficked, married as children, and smuggled in and out of the country. Mauritania, Haiti, and Pakistan performed worst in the index, while three countries–the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Iceland–tied for the best performance this year.
A Kenyan domestic worker who escaped her Saudi “employers” in Irvine, California made the news today, but before stepping onto U.S. soil she was just one of an estimated one million foreign workers employed in domestic work in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf States, draws large numbers of migrants from nearby East Africa and South Asia. Those migrants often find themselves unprotected by local laws and exploited by the powerful elites for whom they work.
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.
Last month, Equality Now unveiled a new web-based project that seeks to put a face to sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women. The first featured story belongs to Alma, a Filipina waitress forced into prostitution to service U.S. nationals near a large U.S. Army base in Olongapo City.
Read Prostitution And Sex Trafficking Survivor Stories Campaign Launched By Equality Now
The new Pope Benedict called Human Trafficking “the most extensive form of slavery in this 21st century” during his first Easter Mass message from Rome.
From NPR’s “Pope’s First Easter Mass Sends Messages Of Peace”