MOSCOW, February 6 (RIA Novosti) – As Russia prepared Wednesday for its one-year countdown to next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, a prominent human rights group alleged that migrant workers constructing the multi-billion-dollar facilities have often been exploited and underpaid.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued its 67-page report on the problem just as Russian President Vladimir Putin began his site visit to the Black Sea resort town, where officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed shocked delight at the progress of construction.
“Workers told Human Rights Watch that some employers cheated them out of wages, required them to work 12-hour shifts with few days off and confiscated passports and work permits, apparently to coerce workers to remain on exploitative jobs,” HRW said in an e-mailed statement.
The report, titled “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” is based on interviews with 66 migrant workers employed in Sochi from 2009 to 2012.
The interviewees complained of overcrowded living quarters and insufficient food, as well as several months at a time without wages.
The companies that employed the interviewed workers either denied any wrongdoing or refused to comment, HRW said.
Most of Sochi’s Olympic facilities have been built from scratch, with estimated overall costs projected to reach 1.5 trillion rubles, or some $50 billion.
The Federal Migration Service (FMS) earlier reported that about 74,000 people are involved in construction of the Olympic facilities, including 58,000 Russian nationals and 16,000 foreigners.
Last week the Kommersant daily, citing documents from a meeting of the state commission overseeing preparations for the Olympics, reported that construction companies are very short on staff and some 22,600 more workers are needed to fulfill the ambitious construction plans.
President Putin toured an Olympic construction site Wednesday and will take part in the countdown opening ceremony Thursday. No comments of his on the workforce issue had been reported as of this writing.
Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s deputy prime minister responsible for Olympic preparations in Sochi, who was traveling with the president, downplayed the significance of the HRW report, saying that certain violations do take place, but given the overall scale of the Olympic construction – some 800 sites – such cases are not widespread.
“It would be impossible not to have them [incidents of abuse] with so many [construction sites], but they are not taking place on a large scale,” Kozak told reporters in Sochi on Wednesday. “If there were mass cases [of abuse], I would know,” he added.
Olympstroy, the state corporation overseeing Olympic construction, said in e-mailed comments Wednesday that it had performed some 1,300 inspections, but workers complained of irregular wages in just five instances.
The most common violations uncovered by Olympstroy included a lack of protective equipment, uniforms and fences around dangerous zones, as well as violations in the use of special equipment such as gas canisters, an Olympstroy spokesperson told RIA Novosti.
“All construction sites have information posted in different languages about the legal establishments that can be addressed with complaints, including telephone numbers,” the spokesperson said.
The IOC – on which HRW had called to help prevent further violations of migrant workers’ rights – confirmed to RIA Novosti that it was ready to cooperate with HRW on individual cases and to push the Russian authorities to react, adding, however, that it was not easy to deal with anonymous complaints.
“We continue to urge HRW to supply us with detailed information that would allow us to deal with violations on a case-by-case basis and to push for action when necessary,” the Switzerland-based IOC said in e-mailed comments. The IOC confirmed that Olympstroy performed inspections and dealt with the violations it discovered.
According to FMS chief Konstantin Romodanovsky, most foreign laborers in Sochi come from Uzbekistan, Turkey, Serbia and Belarus. Workers interviewed by HRW also included nationals from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine.
Last year, FMS personnel inspected Olympic construction sites at least 178 times, uncovering over 1,000 violations of migration rules, Romodanovsky told reporters last month.The regional FMS branch in charge of Sochi could not be reached for comment on the HRW report.
Unpaid wages, corruption among state officials, racial discrimination and lack of legal recourse are some of the most widespread problems faced in Russia by millions of “guest laborers” from former Soviet republics, especially in big cities like Moscow. Migrant workers are in great demand in the country, which is to host several large international events requiring new infrastructure.
In October, the FMS fined a number of construction companies involved in preparations for the 2012 APEC Summit in Vladivostok for illegally hiring 12,000 foreign workers.