A Human Rights Watch report says that at least 17 people have been killed during stadium construction for the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament in Russia, with poor conditions and workers going unpaid for months. 

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Photo: AP Photo / Dmitry Lovetsky

Russia World Cup Stadium - Construction of the new Zenit Stadium, which will host some of the matches of the 2018 World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

The organization came to the conclusion that many workers building the stadiums for the 2018 World Cup taking place in Russia “often face exploitation, poor working conditions, and little recourse for abuses.”

The report goes on to say that “these are long-standing issues that have been well-documented by Human Rights Watch and others before Russia was selected to host the World Cup. Yet the Russian government has not done enough to monitor and curb abusive practices in the construction sector and hold employers accountable.”

The construction process for the 2018 World Cup is the first one ever to be monitored by FIFA and the government hosting the event, in this case Russia.

FIFA states that “despite the lack of contractual relations with construction companies, FIFA is going beyond what any sports federation has done to date to identify and address issues related to human and labor rights.” Human Rights Watch isn’t satisfied. It particularly criticizes FIFA’s lack of transparency and vagueness when it comes to detailing its efforts to curb worker exploitation. It states the football association’s program is limited because “it began well after much of the World Cup construction was underway, covers only stadiums and no other World Cup infrastructure, and with respect to methodology, employers are notified in advance of any inspections.”

According to trade union Building and Wood Workers’ International, 17 workers died on the various construction sites to date.

Doing research on site, Human Rights Watch claims to have “consistently encountered an atmosphere of intimidation, suspicion, and secrecy when trying to document conditions for workers on World Cup sites.

“In the most serious case, local police detained a Human Rights Watch research consultant as he tried to speak to workers outside of the Volgograd Arena. Authorities addressed the representative by name, which suggests that he was under surveillance.”

Workers’ conditions are a constant source of worry at large-scale international sports events all over the world. Workers are often refused payment of wages and lack proper contracts, leaving them powerless in front of courts.

Scores of workers perished during construction for past Olympic Games and World Cups, with the death toll in Qatar, which will host the World Cup in 2022, with some reports putting the toll beyond 1,000.  

During the construction phase of the most recent 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, 70 to 100-plus workers reportedly died. Human Rights Watch “calls on the Russian government to put an end to the widespread worker rights violations in the construction sector, through rigorous inspections and accountability for employers who exploit and abuse workers.

“A high-level public message of zero tolerance for worker abuse would send a strong message through the industry. The authorities should also refrain from punishing migrant workers, including through deportations, for the unscrupulous practices of employers,” referring to the practice of construction companies hiring immigrants who usually have even less rights than the locals.

FIFA thinks its efforts are sufficient. The association highlighted the number of inspections it carried out and measures taken in a statement, before claiming that “there is clear evidence that the monitoring system is helping to improve labor standards. The number of issues found by the experts of the Klinsky Institute has been reduced by 72 percent since the start of the monitoring system in April 2016. Moreover, the results of the fourth and fifth series of inspections show that the companies have rectified around 80 percent of the issues found in the previous visits.”

The entire Human Rights Watch report can be viewed at hrw.org.