VIDEO: Meet the Olympic Workers Still Waiting for Payday

The migrant laborers who built Sochi's eye-catching venues have endured harsh conditions, deportation, and stiffed wages.

| Sun Feb. 23, 2014 7:00 AM EST

In November, Milenko Kuljic left Bileca, his rundown town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for Sochi. He was lured by a recruiter who promised he'd make about 2,000 euros ($2,700) a month building infrastructure for Sochi's Winter Olympics.

Kuljic says he began working for a major construction company overseeing work at some of the Games' most iconic venues, where he says he never got anywhere near the amount of money he was promised. Instead over two months of working, he says he was only given the equivalent of about $1,000 for basic living expenses. living in a dormitory with pay-to-use showers, sharing four toilets with some 200 other workers. All the while, he says his employers promised to eventually pay him in full. 

At the end of the two months, he was suddenly arrested, detained for a week, and then flown home with 122 other workers from the Balkans on a flight chartered by the Serbian government.

Hundreds of other guest workers from all around the world feared a similar fate, and fled Sochi without pay to avoid arrest, and the arguably worse punishment it would bring: a five-year ban on returning to Russia as a guest worker.

It was Kuljic's second time seeking work in Russia. The first time, he says no one cared about workers, like him, who lacked official work permits: "I suspect that they told the authorities about us so that they wouldn't have to pay the money they promised."

Kuljic's experience is far from unique. Of the approximately 96,000 workers who helped build Sochi's Olympic buildings, parks, and infrastructure, about 16,000 were migrant workers, according to Human Rights Watch. Most hailed from former Soviet countries, primarily Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, as well as from communities—like Kuljic's in Bosnia—where families rely on money sent by workers abroad.  

For years, such workers put up with rampant xenophobia and exploitative conditions—overcrowded housing, paltry and unsavory food—in pursuit of a decent wage in Russia. But this fall, with just six months left until the games, thousands of migrants were rounded up and deported. In October alone, according to Russia's Federal Migration Service (FMS), more than 3,000 workers were expelled from the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi.

Migrants to Russia face routine discrimination, as nationalists blame them for taking work from employable Russians. Polls have shown that two-thirds of Russians believe immigrants are prone to crime, and, whether or not they came legally or illegally, want to reduce their numbers in the country.

As non-Russian workers flooded Sochi, such anti-immigrant sentiment escalated—and was encouraged at the highest levels of government.

"It would be very easy for people of other nations to take over this land," Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar region, declared in August of 2012. "We have no other choice: we will squeeze them out, restore order, ask for documents…so that those who are trying to come here on illegal business understand that maybe it's better they don't come." 

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ALL WORK AND NO PAY

Semyon Simonov is a Sochi-based labor lawyer with Memorial, a human rights NGO, and one of the most prominent voices advocating for migrants at the games; last week, he was arrested alongside two members of Pussy Riot while walking in Sochi.

Simonov estimates that since the start of Olympic construction, about 90 percent of migrant workers—at least 14,500 people—were denied some portion of their promised pay. Since their wages were usually paid in cash, expulsion all but guarantees they will never recover lost wages

"The employers realize the workers' vulnerability," Simonov says, "They don't have paperwork, so they can report them to the police, who could arrest them and kick them out."

Citizens of former Soviet republics are particularly susceptible due to a Russian law that allows them to work for up to three months while awaiting a formal work permit under the sponsorship of their employer. According to Simonov, this provision enables a popular bait-and-switch: Employers agree to hire migrant workers, luring them with promises to arrange a work permit and a good wage—from 25,000 to 40,000 rubles ($730-$1,200) a month, according to Simonov.

The employer may then take the workers' passports, ostensibly to facilitate the required paperwork. Simonov says the workers will usually get their first months' salary, and sometimes the second's, but once the end of the third month approaches—and with it, the deadline for being in Russia without papers—the flow of wages stops. Even with their passports returned, complaining would bring attention from immigration officials—at just the moment that the only way the workers can stay in Russia is as illegal migrants.

"It is clear," says Simonov, "that this is just a method of swindling the person."

In October, Human Rights Watch and Memorial sent the International Olympic Committee a list of more than 600 Sochi workers, most from former Soviet states and other countries, who claimed their employers had stiffed them wages, asking the IOC to intervene with the Russian authorities. The IOC acknowledged the letter two weeks ago, but made no promises to encourage their employers or government officials to ensure they received outstanding pay.

The IOC noted that after investigations by Russian authorities into more than 500 companies, 13 of them distributed about 277 million rubles ($8.34 million) in back pay to more than 6000 formally employed workers.  But laborers without contracts, including thousands of migrants, saw nothing from this payout. About 550 migrant workers—many of whom were on Memorial's original list sent to the IOC—have told the organization that they still haven't gotten their outstanding pay.

"The situation has not changed," notes Simonov.
 

A WAVE OF DEPORTATIONS

On September 3 of last year, the Krasnodar region's governor, Alexander Tkachev, called for "raid brigades" consisting of police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and vigilante groups to purge the region of migrants.

Soon, the raids began in earnest. Aleksander Popkov, another lawyer at Memorial, describes one case where about 80 workers on a project who hadn't been paid in three months began to demand their wages and the work permits they had been promised.

"The police from the Federal Migration Services came, circled the building, not letting anyone in or out, and just started checking everyone's documents as they left," Popkov says. Within three days, all 80 of the workers had been deported, without back pay: "So, that turned out to be profitable."

To Marina Dubrovina, a fellow Memorial lawyer, these sort of incidents suggest a "very simple scheme…When the employer doesn't want to pay a salary, he invites people to work, they come and build what needs to be built, then the employer calls in the Federal Migration Service."

Other cases have been more complicated: Some companies claimed to have secured proper papers for their employees, but still found their staff getting detained and deported—in part because of anti-immigrant sentiment, says Simonov, and partly because of heightened pre-Olympic security.

Popkov recalls one Sochi construction company that "lost" workers each day on their commute—a walk that consisted of crossing the street between their dormitory and a construction site.

"The police just stand in the middle of the road and catch people," Popkov explains. "The company would complain, 'We watch for police, we've secured work permits. But we had 150 people exit the site, and only 100 people made it to the other side. Where are the rest? We don't know.'"

In late September, Popkov got a call from a Sochi construction company complaining that police had detained several of their workers. When he went to the central district police station to investigate, he found about 50 men squeezed into a makeshift shed of corrugated metal. The men said they'd been there anywhere from a few hours to eight days. In a shaky cellphone video he recorded, the workers say they haven't been given food or anyplace to sleep.
 

AFTER SOCHI

Even though the games are ending, conditions seem unlikely to change. Russia's judicial institutions have so far provided little accountability for contractors who abuse workers.

With Russia hosting the Formula 1 Grand Prix this summer and the World Cup in 2018, there remains a great appetite for foreign construction laborers. Despite everything, Russia remains a powerful magnet for workers. Kuljic, for one, is keen to return:

"I chose my path, I decided to work in Sochi, I was fooled, but I didn't have any other option," he says from his hometown in Bosnia.

"There are no jobs here. This is not a life," he adds. "I just hope I can get the five-year ban expunged so I can go back to Russia to work."

    

This article was made possible by an exchange sponsored by the International Center for Journalists.

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