Olympic Games turned Blame Games: Responsibility for Abuse of Migrant Workers in Sochi

blogpost by Isabelle Swerissen, chairperson of the Interest Group

sochi-2014-logo-4The 2014 Winter Olympics are in full swing. The games, which take place in the Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, should have been a prestige project of huge importance for Russia’s image at home and abroad. Instead, they are turning out to become the most criticized games ever. The controversies surrounding the Sochi games are many: flagrant discrimination against the gay community, forced evictions of homeowners to make way for Olympic venues and infrastructure, environmental destruction of the surrounding land and, of course, the staggering costs of the whole enterprise, totaling an estimated 50 billion dollars. An issue that has received far less media attention is the abuse of migrant workers on whose backs the Olympic sites are built.

The transformation of Sochi from a quiet subtropical resort into a winter sporting paradise required the influx of thousands of workers from Central Asia, the Caucasus and other places. Dozens of these migrant workers were subjected to a range of abuses and exploitation, or so Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports. It claims that “employers cheated workers out of wages, required them to work 12-hour shifts with few days off, and confiscated passport and work permits, apparently to coerce workers to remain in exploitative jobs”. Since a host of different actors was involved in construction activities in and around Sochi, this blog post inquires which of these actors can be held responsible for their part in violating the rights of migrant workers. Let the Blame Games begin!

Russia and Olympstroy

The first competitors in the Blames Games are Russia and its state corporation Olympstroy. Olympstroy was created in 2007 to realize the Program of Construction of Olympic venues and infrastructure. According to HRW, it has made “some important public commitments” regarding labor protection on sites falling within the Olympic program and requires contractors engaged in construction activities to respect labor rights. To that end, a department of inspection control was established in 2010 to cooperate with the regional labor inspectorate to monitor adherence to workers’ rights on Olympic sites. Unfortunately, the consistent patterns of abuse listed in the HRW report strongly suggest an inability and/or unwillingness to take all steps necessary to guarantee the rights of migrant workers.

Russia must ensure that its state company Olympstroy does not violate the rights of migrant workers. There are several legally binding instruments relating specifically to the protection of migrant workers, which can be found here, here, here and here. However, Russia has not signed any of these instruments nor can they be said to reflect customary international law. Many of these instruments are part of a comprehensive body of international labour law, developed under the auspices of the International Labour Organization. The latter has identified eight conventions as “fundamental”, containing rights which apply to all human beings at work, irrespective of nationality. Since Russia has ratified all eight of these conventions, it is responsible for violations of the basic protections contained therein.

There are several broader human rights standards that Russia is also obliged to observe. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in Article 7, recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions at work”. In addition, the European Social Charter, which is the social rights instrument of the Council of Europe, also sets out in some detail rights concerning conditions at work. These instruments, which have both been ratified by Russia, are generally applicable to all human beings under Russia’s jurisdiction, without any distinction as to nationality. But as the situation in Sochi has demonstrated, migrant workers nonetheless see their human rights violated, triggering Russia’s responsibility.

Private companies

The second competitors are private companies, some of which are subcontractors of Olympstroy. A number of these companies have explicitly recognized to respect human rights, including migrant workers’ rights, or have adopted policies and procedures in that regard. Engeocom Association, the general contractor for the Central Olympic Stadium, has for example stated that it works “in strict adherence to the legislation of the Russian Federation and international legal acts … regulating  protection of migrant workers’ rights”. At the time of the construction, it claimed to undertake regular “inspections of the respect for rights of migrant workers”. Sadly, it was one of the few companies to act in this way, explaining the frequent occurrence of complaints about abuse.

Although Russia carries the primary responsibility to promote and protect the rights of migrant workers, the idea that private companies should also respect those rights and human rights in general is increasingly recognized. This is reflected in the elaboration of various soft law instruments, most notably the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guidelines, which implement the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 (with Russia interestingly acting as a core sponsor of the resolution). They specify that business enterprises of all sizes must exercise due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for the impact of their activities on human rights. In case of insufficient due diligence efforts, private entities may be responsible for failing to respect migrant workers’ rights.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are also relevant, since some of the companies engaged in construction activities were registered abroad (e.g. Botta Management Group in Switzerland, STRABAG in Austria). The Guidelines, which are recommendations jointly addressed by governments to multinational enterprises, call on such enterprises to “respect human rights, which means they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved”, including by carrying out “human rights due diligence”. Depending on the steps taken to prevent adverse impacts on the rights of migrant workers, multinational companies can possibly incur responsibility.

International Olympic Committee

The third and final competitor is the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is “the supreme authority of the Olympic Movement”. As such, it includes promoting the Olympic ideal of “preservation of human dignity” among its goals. And yet, the IOC has not always seen a clear role for itself in addressing human rights issues in the context of or during Olympic Games. This changed after the controversial 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, when the IOC elaborated on its objective to preserve human dignity by including a commitment to intervene at the level of the host country’s National Olympic Committee in the event of serious abuse, such as “abuse of migrant workers at Olympic venue construction sites”. Alas, this was not enough to keep such abuses from happening again in Sochi.

The IOC, thanks to relentless efforts by HRW, was well informed of the abusive treatment of migrant workers. In fact, HRW first raised its concerns as early as 2008. The IOC responded by contacting the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee for further information regarding the alleged abuses. It wasn’t until February 2014, after “an investigation of more than 500 companies”, that the IOC finally pressed the Russian authorities to investigate persistent claims of non-payment of wages to migrant workers. This is probably the most that can be expected in terms of IOC action on the matter. In any case, its legal status as an NGO and the fact that it was several layers removed from what happened on the ground, make it unlikely that the IOC itself will be held responsible for violations of the rights of migrant workers.

And the winner is…

In this blog post, I’ve discussed the various actors that may be held responsible for their role in violating the rights of migrant workers in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Sochi. The enormous scale of the games has made it clear to no actor can alone attempt to realize their organization. Russia, its state company Olympstroy, several subcontractors, many other businesses, and of course the IOC were all, to a greater or lesser extent, involved in construction activities and thus had a part in the labor rights´ violations that built Sochi – quite literally. If medals were awarded for the greatest blame in those violations, Russia would most likely be the winner. However, when it comes to migrants working in abusive and exploitative conditions, there really are no winners, only losers.

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