Beneath the Olympic Veneer: Migrant Workers’ Exploitation in Sochi

By Josh Feng

With the frigid peaks and lush valleys of their home in the Ukrainian Carpathians behind them, Maxim and Yaroslav departed for Sochi, the “Russian Riviera”—in search of a promised monthly salary of 50,400 rubles ($1,500), more than double the average wage in Ukraine. They were told by an intermediary to expect employment in interior finishing work during their time in Sochi. But on their first day, the subcontractor MonArch informed them that the only employment available was arduous unskilled labor. For two months, they endured scanty food provisions, meager, accommodations, and 12-hour workdays—all without pay. Afterwards, they stumbled aboard a bus for the 2000-kilometer ride back home with a mere 14,115 rubles in their pockets ($420).


Construction of the Olympic skating arena. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Sochi glistens with a post-Olympic pride. The sleepy resort town, which once catered largely to Russian officials, has been transformed into an international hub. But state-of-the-art sports venues and lavish hotels haven’t been able to muffle the voices of thousands of Central Asian migrant construction workers who suffered the same abuse as Maxim and Yaroslav. After years of mistreatment, these laborers are making themselves heard—with the help of Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose report Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s Winter 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi brought dozens of these voices into a growing debate over the IOC’s responsibility for labor abuse in Olympic host cities.

Yunus, a construction employee from Uzbekistan working at the Olympic Coastal Cluster, hoped for fair wages, but found only relentless hard labor in Sochi.

“I worked for 70 full days without pay,” he told HRW. “We worked from 8 am to 8 pm with no days off.”

Maxim, the Ukrainian migrant, explained the sinister mechanics behind these stories: “People work, they don’t get paid, and they leave. Then a bus comes and unloads a fresh group of workers to repeat the cycle.”

New streams of workers continue to flood Olympic construction sites, with the migrants either lacking knowledge of the abuse or desperate enough to test their luck. But the gamble’s results can be devastating.

The story of Maxim and Yaroslav fits within a recent trend of migrant worker exploitation throughout Russia. Soviet-Era ties continue to influence labor migration; 80 percent of all foreigners seeking employment in Russia come from nine countries in the former USSR. Ten to twelve million of these migrant workers—who benefit from free visas allowing passage to Russia—contribute to the foundations of the country’s economy. But only about two million live there legally with work and residency permits.

A majority of Russians are ethnic Slavs, but Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and oth- er minorities make up much of the migrant worker population. Tensions between Slavs and other ethnic groups often leave migrant workers the target of nationalistic fury. According to a report compiled by the International Partnership for Human Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights, 568 Central Asian migrants were beaten and 220 killed between 2004 and 2012.

Though hate crimes and discrimination towards migrant workers in Sochi may not be anything new in Russia, this exploitation poses serious threats not only to the laborers themselves, but also to Olympic and Russian institutionalism.

According to the HRW, 16,000 migrant workers were employed in the construction of 136 Olympic sites in 2013. A report released by the same organization found that employers’ abuse of these workers ranged from the withholding of wages and identity documents to inadequate housing and meals. These abuses violate all eight of the core International Labor Organization conventions that Russia has ratified, as well as other international treaties. However, no penalties have resulted from these broken promises.

Some of Sochi’s most disturbing cruelties stem from the deplorable accommodations and food provisions supplied by employers with Olympic contracts.

According to workers interviewed by the HRW on the Central Olympic Stadium site, close to 200 employees were housed by the general contractor Engeocom in a single-family home with only one bathroom. Iskandar, who shares a 36-square-meter room with fourteen other men, said, “It [the housing] is like being in the barracks.” A worker from Serbia added, “We slept on bare mattresses and bare pillows. Some of us got skin rashes. It was really unhealthy.”

A number of workers employed on the same site said that the food provided didn’t allow them to sustain themselves for the pace and rigor of work required of them. HRW also found that although many migrant workers were promised food and accommodation in addition to salary, funds for these services were often deducted from their pay without warning.

Despite these circumstances, migrant workers are often unwilling or unable to seek redress through government agencies or courts. If an employer fails to provide work permits, employees could face fines and expulsion for entering the legal system.

Such was the case for Maxim and Yaroslav, whose employer placed them in a situation that left them with no way to seek restitution. As Maxim explains, “We have no contracts and no work permits. They’ve taken away our passports. They promised to help us with the work permits, but we got noth- ing. All I have in the way of an official document is a pass to enter the construction site.”

These broken promises become bargaining chips, allowing contractors and intermediaries to pressure migrant workers into remaining on site. And some workers’ attempts to address substandard conditions have been met with severe punishment. In October 2010, 50 Uzbek workers at Novii Gorod gathered to protest the non-payment of wages. The company retaliated by calling the Federal Migration Service to verify their documents, resulting in the deportation of dozens who demonstrated or complained.

Dilmurod, who participated in the demonstration, was never paid the money owed to him. “Everything was fine. I had a work per- mit, housing, food, insurance, and everything was paid for. Then they stopped bothering to pay us […] after our demonstration, everything went downhill. When we were trying to sort out some kind of payment from them, they kept 43,000 rubles [$1,360] owed to me.”

The dire detention conditions recently revealed by HRW render even the prospect of arrest frightening—a further barrier to pro- test. Beginning in September 2013, raids conducted by Russian authorities of workplaces, homes, and public places in Sochi resulted in the detainment of hundreds of migrant workers. Most of those captured were crowded into temporary holding cells that exposed them to the elements. During containment periods that lasted up to a week, many were also denied food and legal representation.

Though these raids coincided with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) final inspection, IOC Coordination Committee Chairman Jean-Claude Killy remarked, “Everything [was] very impressive.” While he did respond to questions regarding controversial Russian laws against gay “propaganda” (saying they violate no Olympic regulations), he has thus far made no public statement on labor abuses.

Though the IOC does not set forth detailed human-rights policies in host city contracts, actions by Russian contractor sand authorities have not only violated national and international law ensuring labor protections, but have also smeared the integrity of the Olympic vision.

The Olympic Charter, the closest thing the IOC has to a constitution, states that Olympism, the committee’s guiding principle, “seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Furthermore, its goals include placing “sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Perhaps the IOC would be better off not standing behind “fundamental ethical principles” and “human dignity”. The Olympics have a long and controversial history: child labor at the Beijing Games in 2008, civil rights abuses in Atlanta before the Games of 1996, and too many other incidents to list. The organization’s silence in Sochi is nothing new.

But assigning blame could be the wrong reaction. After all, the IOC is fundamentally an organization aimed at promoting and organizing international sports. It’s not the United Nations or the World Bank. Maybe the Committee should skip the ethical pronouncements entirely, focus on sprinting and ski jumps, and give up on the notion that the Games are anything other than—well, games.

Whatever you think of Olympic exceptionalism, the events in Sochi add another stain to the shine of the IOC’s brand. So long as the Committee fails to enforce the ideals of its own Charter, “the preservation of human dignity” will remain a collection of empty words. And before long, we may start hearing the same stories from Rio. 2016 is right around the corner.

Josh Feng ’17 is in Timothy Dwight College. He can be reached at

Interviews were conducted by Human Rights Watch and pulled from the report “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s Winter 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi ” © 2013 Human Rights Watch. The last names of those who spoke were omitted from the report to protect privacy.