In Response to #SochiProblems

Originally published:

I’ve been keeping tabs on the #SochiProblems tag on Twitter and have been noting with some amusement the issues that athletes, journalists, and others have been having with the Olympics facilities in Sochi, Russia. Still, something was causing me some consternation.

Was it the mocking of Russian English speakers? No, not really.

Was it the flagrant disregard for property seen in the American bobsledder breaking down his jammed door? No, not so much.

Was it the trivializing of highly problematic issues for Russians? Yep, that’s the one.

The controversy of the Sochi Olympics extends even further beyond such issues as the announcement of Russia’s anti-gay laws and the malfunctioning of infrastructure. Human Rights Watch, in a report from February 2013, details the egregious human rights abuses committed against migrant workers from Russia and abroad in the construction of the Sochi Olympics buildings.

The article begins with a quote from Ukranian migrant labourer Maxim: “People work, they don’t get paid, and leave. Then a bus comes and unloads a fresh group of workers to repeat the cycle.”

Migrant workers are one of the most exploited niches of the labour force. They are often socially stigmatized, denied rights, and worked to the bone. In this case, all of the above, and without even being paid. Most migrant workers were not given formal employment contracts, meaning their work was informal, irregular, and undocumented. This prevents the workers from seeking legal redress.

The labourers were promised wages of 55-80 rubles per hour (approximately $1.72 to $2.50 CAD per hour).

Most workers interviewed in this report also stated that their employers often deducted the price of food, residence, and expenses for arranging contracts from their meager sums. Many paycheques were delayed or not delivered at all.

The report quotes Omburek, a labourer from Uzbekistan, who reported, “I worked for almost three months, others worked for five months, for nothing. Nothing but promises, promises from them.”

Furthermore, labourers were often forced to work seven days a week with limited breaks. If a day was missed, that was often used as an excuse to deduct or withhold wages. Employers also withheld the labourers’ personal identification documents, such as passports, in order to coerce them into continuing employment.

So, as funny as it is to see Americans, Canadians, and other citizens of the global North express dismay at the terrible facilities, I think their laughs come at a human cost.