By HTC associate Peter Rocco
When the Olympic Games open today in Sochi, Russia, television viewers will no doubt be treated to views of brand new stadiums and other displays of Vladimir Putin’s largesse. Unfortunately, NBC’s commentators will likely not point out that the glittering infrastructure was built by the forced labor of migrants from places such as Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Ukraine. Since Russia was awarded the Games in 2007, tens of thousands of workers have cycled through hundreds of projects that have transformed the Sochi area. Many of these workers have suffered withheld wages, theft of their identification and travel documents, verbal and physical abuse, and been forced to work inhumane hours in unsafe conditions.
Sochi was an unusual choice for the Winter Games. The city itself is a beach resort in a subtropical climate, located in the underdeveloped North Caucasus region. Thus, the need for new infrastructure – not just Olympic venues but also road and rail links – and the necessary labor were immense. Ruslan Aliev, president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, called the Games “the largest [construction] project in Russia’s history.”
The need to build world-class athletic facilities, hotels, highways and railways from scratch, coupled with endemic corruption, created an atmosphere that naturally lent itself to taking advantage of foreign workers. As early as 2009, Human Rights Watch documented extensive and flagrant mistreatment of workers and issued calls to the Russian government and the International Olympic Committee to enforce stricter oversight. The documented abuses are particularly galling given that the Sochi Games will be the most expensive in modern Olympic history – $50 billion and counting, dwarfing the $7 billion spent in 2010 during Vancouver’s games. This money is clearly not being spent on workers’ salaries. To its credit, the Russian government recently pledged that some workers would receive back wages after investigations revealed they had been illegally withheld.
Still, there is reason to be skeptical of this promise, as forced labor is not a new problem in Russia. The U.S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report labeled Russia a Tier 3 country, marking it as one of the world’s worst offenders in terms of human trafficking. Visa-free travel to Russia and stagnant domestic economies have led to an influx of migrant workers from states of the former Soviet Union, particularly Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Unfortunately byzantine bureaucracy and predatory employers often push these migrants into irregular work situations, making them de facto lawbreakers by virtue of not having the correct permit or having their identification documents confiscated. This tenuous legal status discourages migrants from seeking redress from the authorities, who would just as soon deport them as help them seek back wages. The police may also be on an abusive employer’s payroll, in which case complaining workers will promptly be returned to the place they fled.
The IOC touts a goal of “Building a Better World Through Sport” based on “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Assuming human rights are included among these principles, the IOC is falling well short of its goal. As you cheer on your favorite athletes during this year’s Olympics, spare a thought for the many exploited workers who paved roads and laid brick to make all those triple axels and hat tricks possible.