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Analysis & Opinion
26.03.12 The Human Cost Of Olympic Construction
By Sofia Javed

With two years to go before the 2014 Winter Olympics, construction projects in Sochi are being met with both praise and scrutiny. While Olympics officials are praising the progress of the multibillion-dollar endeavor, human rights activists continue advocating for the proper treatment of the thousands of migrant workers who are needed to create an elaborate Olympic village. They say the abuse of workers – including lack of contracts, nonpayment of wages and threats of retaliation against those who complain – continues in Sochi and reflects the general attitude toward migrant labor on construction sites around the country.

From the start, the transformation of Sochi, a quiet Black Sea coastal resort, into an Olympic ski village fit to host both sporting events and an influx of visitors was an ambitious endeavor. In addition to building six stadiums from scratch and a sophisticated sports complex in the mountains, the city’s aging Soviet infrastructure – including hotels, the airport, transportation, roads, energy facilities and telecommunications – would need full renovation. Altogether, more than 230 new facilities will be built with a construction budget of about $6.5 billion, according to the Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee.

It seemed a daunting task, and in the first few years after Sochi won the Olympic bid in 2007 many in Russia and in the international community were concerned that construction was running behind schedule. But last month a commission from the International Olympic Committee visited Sochi and said preparations for the 2014 winter games are on schedule and construction of all sports venues should be complete by the end of this year. “We are very satisfied," International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission Chairman Jean-Claude Killy told reporters after his inspection. “Two years are left, and these will be the most challenging two years. But we see no reason for concern.”

Human rights workers, however, do see causes for alarm. Just one week after the IOC’s visit to Sochi, New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement at the UN Human Rights Council highlighting the continuing human rights concerns related to preparations for the winter games. Along with harassment of civil society activists and forced evictions of local residents, Human Rights Watch said it “has documented cases of migrant workers working on construction sites in Sochi who have been denied contracts and wages and who faced retaliation for protesting these violations.”

In March 2010 some of these cases surfaced when a host of stories in the Russian press highlighted the dismal conditions of Sochi construction workers. A video posted online by an anonymous worker showed unsanitary conditions, including toilets covered in feces and inaccessible shower stalls. Workers went on strike to demand months of unpaid wages. Worker Igor Pechorin told RFE/RL that he came from Siberia to earn money in Sochi. After not being paid for six months of work, Pechorin complained and received partial payment.

Managers of the construction projects in question placed the blame on Olympstroy, Russia’s state-owned corporation tasked with managing construction for the Olympics, for not sending allocated funding on time to the subcontractors who hired the workers from all around the country. Olympstroy could not be reached for comment.

The situation is more precarious for many workers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, who are more vulnerable to exploitation by employers because of their immigration status. Dmitry Valentey, a migration specialist at the Moscow office of the International Organization for Migration, said these migrants arrive in Russia legally, but without a proper work permit, their status in the country becomes illegal after a while. He added that while the International Organization for Migration hotline fields calls from workers in need around the country, many are afraid to complain for fear of being deported.

Human Rights Watch researcher Jane Buchanan, who has been monitoring the situation of migrant workers in Sochi since 2009, said the lack of contracts puts foreign migrants in further jeopardy. “Even if you arrive in the country, and you have a work permit, the moment you don’t have a contract everything else falls apart,” Buchanan said. “So if they don’t have a contract, then they can’t be working legally, and they also can’t be legal residents after a certain period.”

In October 2010 Human Rights Watch documented the case of more than 50 construction workers from Uzbekistan who staged a peaceful protest in front of Sochi’s mayor’s office after months of filing complaints about unpaid wages. Shortly after the protest several of the workers were detained and expelled from Russia for violating migration legislation. Human Rights Watch later learned that some of the workers received partial payments before being sent back to Uzbekistan.

Buchanan said the same patterns of abuse of migrant workers emerge during any large sporting or entertainment event, and Human Rights Watch documented such problems extensively in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics. She said while Russian human rights groups have not yet focused on these issues, Human Rights Watch has been in constant communication with the IOC, which then relays the concerns to the Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee. Human Rights Watch is preparing to launch its next stage of monitoring in Sochi in two months.

Buchanan said she hopes the IOC will act on these issues in the same way it has acted on big issues in the past, including environmental concerns and doping. “These things can happen and do happen with every Olympics,” Buchanan said. “We want the IOC to take them up and produce policy action.”
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