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'Exploitative, abusive': Activists slam conditions for workers at Olympic site

Mikhail Mordasov / AFP - Getty Images, file

Construction workers, many of them migrants, go for lunch in April 2011 at the ski resort that is part of the Sochi Olympic venue. Some workers are now complaining of having no, or few, breaks and of going unpaid.

Published at 11:10 a.m. ET: Months without pay, 12-hour shifts, few days off, fined for being sick, cramped accommodations filled with the “overwhelming smell of sweat” -- and deported for complaining.

A report by Human Rights Watch published Wednesday paints a grim picture of life for some foreign workers building the Olympic venues for the Sochi 2014 Games in Russia -- set to be the most expensive Olympics in history at a cost of $51 billion.

Based on interviews with 66 workers over three years at what has been described as the world’s biggest construction site, the report catalogs a litany of complaints about conditions.

“Athletes, journalists, and Olympic ticket holders in Sochi will watch the 2014 Winter Games in iconic modern sports venues, broadcast centers, and hotels,” the author of the report, Jane Buchanan, said in a statement.

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

A hotel is shown under construction Monday at the mountain Olympic cluster east of Sochi. Much of the heavy work is being conducted by thousands of migrant workers, and conditions have caught the eye of Human Rights Watch.

“But many migrant workers have toiled in exploitative, abusive conditions to build these shimmering façades and luxurious interiors,” she added.

The report said most of the workers were carpenters, welders, steel fitters or people doing odd-jobs, typically earning $1.80 to $2.60 an hour. They came from countries such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

“Some workers worked for up to six months without pay, hoping to be paid and reluctant to leave, thereby forfeiting several months’ salary,” the report said. “Workers in these most egregious situations ultimately did leave these abusive employers, concluding that they might never be paid.”

Cigarette money
Omurbek, 30, from Uzbekistan, told the researchers that he “worked for almost three months, others worked for five months, for nothing.”

“Nothing but promises, promises from them,” he added. Occasionally, however, he would be given small amounts of money for cigarette and phone calls.

And Radmilo Petrovic, 52, from Serbia, lost more than just unpaid wages, according to the report.

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After eight months of work for "a little bit [of money] here or there," he returned home penniless. His wife accused him of squandering or hiding the money and promptly left him.

Ruziboi Aliev, 48, a father of four from Tajikistan, worked on the Main Media Center site. He told Human Rights Watch that he worked 12-hour shifts and had five days off over a four-month period. A 23-year-old worker from Uzbekistan said he had one day off in six months.

“The work is really very difficult. There isn’t any rest. It’s really hard. The pay is miserly, but what can you do? ... They don’t even give you a minute to have a cigarette, or rest for a minute,” Salimjon, 22, from Uzbekistan said.

Isamiddin, 43, from Kyrgyzstan, said he was fined $32 a day for two days when he didn’t show up for work. “I was sick both times,” he said, complaining the fine was unfair as he earned $19 to $22 a day.

Workers described 150 to 200 people living in houses designed for one family.

One, from Uzbekistan, said he slept on a bunk bed in a room containing 8 to 12 people. “In the summer, it’s hot and stuffy, totally unbearable. In the winter, it’s not as bad; it’s tolerable, though you get really tired of the overwhelming smell of sweat,” he said.

The report said workers were sometimes not given a contract, meaning their employment status and therefore their right to live in Russia was “irregular.”

Mikhail Mordasov / AFP - Getty Images

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Human Rights Watch said that in October 2010, 50 workers staged a public demonstration about non-payment of wages. Their company then contacted state migration officials to check their documents “after which dozens of workers who had complained or demonstrated were deported.”

The claims, many of which were made anonymously for fear of retaliation, come after similar concerns were raised about foreign workers who helped build the venues and infrastructure for the 2008 Beijing Games.

In an e-mailed statement, state corporation Olympstroy, which oversees the construction work by a number of firms, said protection of workers’ rights was being strictly enforced. “Any worker, who has concerns about violations of his rights, is being encouraged … to report the problem,” it said.

Olympstroy added that it had received only five complaints from workers about “violations of their rights” during the past two years. “All violations have been properly addressed and dealt with as per the Russian law,” it added.

'It is never easy'
The International Olympic Committee issued a statement Wednesday saying “it is never easy dealing with anonymous allegations.”

“We would continue to urge HRW to furnish us with the details of cases that allow us to deal with them on a case-by-case basis and to push for action when necessary,” the IOC added.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who was with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Wednesday, dismissed the suggestion that there was a significant problem.

“There have not been enough complaints to deserve an international report,” he told reporters, according to Reuters.

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Asked about Kozak’s response, Buchanan said it was “inappropriate to diminish this.”

“What the Russian government should be doing is investigating these types of allegation and making sure they don’t take place,” she said.

Buchanan said workers from different companies and different Olympic sites had “consistently” reported similar complaints and stressed they were given no incentive to speak to Human Rights Watch.

She said the contractors involved had generally given responses -- detailed in the report -- that were “vague” generalizations, denying there was a problem.

Asked about what athletes and others thinking of going to Sochi should do in light of the report, Buchanan said that Human Rights Watch was “not against the Olympics.”

“The Olympics is a tremendous opportunity for Russia to present itself to the world,” she said. “We just want people to know that this is going on and to have higher expectations for future games -- that these types of abuses shouldn’t take place.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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