Construction workers abused at Russia's World Cup stadiums, rights watchdog claims

Construction workers abused at Russia's World Cup stadiums, rights watchdog claims
By bne IntelliNews June 15, 2017

As Russia prepares to host the Fifa World Cup for the first time in 2018, the conditions faced by workers at the stadiums being built to host the championship have come under harsh scrutiny in a new Human Rights Watch report. 

Some workers – many of them migrants – have reported non-payment or greatly delayed wages, no employment contracts and a failure by their employers to offer sufficient protection when they are working in sub-zero conditions. 

The study, Red Card: Exploitation of Construction Workers on World Cup Sites in Russia, follows a report from the Building and Wood Workers’ International global union that at least 17 workers have died on World Cup stadium sites in Russia. 

Another scandal broke earlier this year, with media reports of what was effectively North Korean slave labour in St Petersburg. Workers on the new stadium in Russia’s second city reportedly worked extremely long hours and were compelled to send their wages to the government in Pyongyang. 

The situation in Russia is by no means as bad as in Qatar, which is due to host the next World Cup in 2022, and where the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that by more than 7,000 migrant workers could have died in by the time construction is completed.

However, Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup has been controversial since the outset. Former Fifa president Sepp Blatter acknowledged in October 2015 that Russia had been chosen before voting began. Now, the HRW report has again shone the spotlight onto both the Russian construction sector and football’s governing body. 

“Fifa’s promise to make human rights a centrepiece of its global operations has been put to the test in Russia, and Fifa is coming up short,” said Jane Buchanan, HRW associate Europe and Central Asia director. “Construction workers on World Cup stadiums face exploitation and abuse, and FIFA has not yet shown that it can effectively monitor, prevent, and remedy these issues.”

Fifa responded later on June 14 with a statement that disputed the “the overall message of exploitation on the construction sites portrayed by HRW”, which it said “does not correspond with Fifa’s assessment”. 

Fifa claimed to have an independent monitoring system in place, and that it was “going beyond what any sports federation has done to date to identify and address issues related to human and labour rights”. However, it did acknowledge that “incompliances with relevant labour standards continue to be found – something to be expected in a project of this scale”.

Russia’s investment in hosting the World Cup is immense; 12 stadiums in 11 cities will host the 32 teams competing in the championship. Some of the stadiums are already completed and will also be host to the Confederations Cup in June and July 2017. 

In February, the government said it had boosted its spending on preparations for the event by RUB19.1bn (€300mn), bringing total spending on the event to around €10bn, including investments from the public and private sectors.

HRW interviewed some of the thousands of workers from the stadium construction sites, finding numerous cases of unpaid or late wages. Their interviewees included one worker from Uzbekistan, who said he had received no payments at all since he started work in July 2016. Reports of payments delayed by several months were common, sparking a stroke by several hundred workers at the Rostov Arena in April. (Other workers, meanwhile, said they were paid regularly and in full.)

According to the HRW research, some workers, including both Russian nationals and migrants, said their employers did not provide them with a written employment contract or service contract, even though this is required under Russian law. Some received a contract only after several months; others never received them, the report said.

There were also reports of contracts that seemed inconsistent with Russian labour law, typically stating only part of the wage with the remainder paid in cash. “This is a common practice among employers in Russia but leaves workers vulnerable in the event of a dispute,” the report noted. 

Workers in the construction sector are particularly vulnerable to abuse by their employers since many of them are migrants – either from within Russia or other countries, chiefly the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Another problem documented by the report was that workers continued to build when temperatures fell as low as -25C to -30C. Workers also told HRW that they only received one indoor break during a nine-hour working day – a clear violation of Russian law which sets protections for employees working in cold temperatures including stipulating the frequency and duration of breaks.

“I don’t know at what temperature it’s prohibited to work. The employer simply says when it’s not allowed and we don’t go to work,” one worker told the HRW interviewee. 

HRW’s report also details intimidation, with many of those interviewed saying they were afraid to speak out about abuses because of possible reprisals by their employers. One HRW researcher was detained when trying to interview construction workers outside the World Cup stadium in Volgograd in April. 

Poor treatment of migrant workers on construction projects in Russia is nothing new. Similar abuse was identified by HRW and other observers in the run-up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. The Russian labour inspectorate has since revealed that wages of RUB227mn (€3.5mn) remained unpaid.