Olympics Aftermath: How Are Workers Being Treated in Sochi?

Russia spent $51 billion to build facilities for the Sochi Olympics.  Much of the construction work was performed by at least 100,000 migrant workers who endured poor working and living conditions, and were never paid the promised wages for their work.  (Workers were treated similarly poorly in the run-up to the 2008 summer games in Beijing and the 2012 winter games in London.) 

In 2013, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report documenting migrant workers’ conditions in Sochi.  The report detailed the types of abuses encountered among migrant workers, including employers “failing to pay full wages [and] excessively delaying payment of wages,” as well as “withholding identity documents [and] failing to provide employment contracts.”  The report also documented poor living conditions, and highlighted migrant workers’ particular vulnerabilities, stating: “employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested against abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia.”

Wage Abuses

Perhaps the most concerning abuses consisted of employers simply failing to pay the promised wages.  Contractors promised foreign workers between $770 and $2,700 per month to travel to Sochi and work on building the facilities, according to Human Rights Watch and Mother Jones magazine.  According to Reuters, for workers from Serbia and Bosnia, this may be more than they would otherwise earn in a year.  But employers regularly failed to meet their promises.  Human Rights Watch interviewed a man from Uzbekistan who agreed to work for $770 per month, but instead he “worked for almost three months . . . for nothing.  Nothing but promises, promises from them.”  

Other contractors withheld workers’ first month’s wages, according to Think Progress.  Human Rights Watch explained that this practice is to ensure that the worker stays on until the job is completed.  A man from Kyrgyzstan explained: “‘[y]ou work August and September, but only at the end of September do they give you the money.”

Similarly, Human Rights Watch reported that employers also deducted expenses from workers’ wages, such as the fees for work visas, food, and protective work clothing, without telling workers ahead of time that they were responsible for these costs.

Poor Living Conditions

According to Human Rights Watch, Russia required Olympic contractors to “provide appropriate working conditions, accommodation, [and] food” to workers.  But reportedly accommodations fell far below this standard.  One Serbian man described to Reuters, “after a 27-hour bus ride to Sochi, he was given lodgings in an empty room . . . [h]e rigged a light bulb in his room with a scavenged power cable.”  A man from Bosnia described “living in a dormitory with pay-to-use showers, sharing four toilets with some 200 other workers” according to Mother Jones.  A man from Tajikistan described to Human Rights Watch “about 200 workers liv[ing] in one single-family home with one bathroom, with up to sixteen workers in one room.” 

The Threat of Deportation

Like foreign workers in many countries, the threat of deportation prevented workers in Sochi from seeking redress for labor abuses.  Human Rights Watch explains that contracting firms encouraged employees to work in Russia regardless of whether they had the proper visa.  Some workers came on 30-day tourist visas and then were told to unlawfully “cross the nearby border into neighboring Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia and then return in order to renew the permit,” according to Think Progress.  

Some workers were encouraged to surrender their passports to the employer with the promise that the employer would secure a visa—leaving the workers without a work visa or travel documents in the meantime.  Mother Jones explains that workers from former soviet countries are particularly vulnerable due to a Russian law that allows them work in for three months while a formal work visa is processed.  This law “enables a popular bait-and-switch,” Mother Jones explains, where  “[e]mployers agree to hire migrant workers” and then as “the end of the third month approaches . . . the flow of wages stops” but “complaining would bring attention from immigration officials—at just the moment that the only way the workers can stay in Russia is as illegal migrants.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed a group of workers from Uzbekistan who protested the wage theft and appealed to the Russian government for assistance.  Their employer retaliated by alerting Russia’s Federal Migration Services, resulting in over 60 workers being deported.  Another worker reported to Human Rights Watch that the government labor inspectors in Sochi “didn’t seem to care at all,” telling him to go home if he is unhappy with the treatment in Russia.  

In January, Radio Free Europe reported on a group of more than one hundred ethnic Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina who were deported from Sochi without receiving their wages.  Many more, allegedly, fled rather than face deportation—because deportation comes with a five-year ban on returning to Russia as a migrant worker.

Some workers are susceptible to deportation even if they do have the proper visa, according to Mother Jones.  One Sochi construction company described their workers being arrested (and later deported) as they crossed to the street to get to their worksite—even though these workers did have the proper documentation.  Local labor lawyers attribute this to anti-immigrant sentiment in the region, as well as increased security around the Olympics. 

The International Olympics Committee’s and Russia’s Response

Advocacy groups pushed the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to p
rotect Olympic workers prior to the games, but had only moderate success.  In December, at IOC urging, Russian authorities required over 500 firms to pay a total of almost $8 million in unpaid wages to employees, according to MSNBC.  But according to the Wall Street Journal, many workers never received the promise paycheck.

In January, Russia vowed Olympic workers would be paid in full before the start of the February games, according to the Wall Street Journal.  And In February, after the games ended, the IOC announced it would take “firm action” to encourage Russian authorities to ensure that workers are paid in full, according to the AFP.  But we know from numerous news reports, that has not happened.  But as Reuters reports, with unemployment above 20 percent in Bosnia, a Bosnian worker stated, “[i]f we get the chance, we’d do the same again . . . [f]or us, Russia is the promised land.”

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