The next Qatar? Russia 2018 and the Scope for Exploitation of Foreign Workers

World Cup

The flurry of stories of appalling working and living conditions of migrant construction workers involved in preparations for the 2022 World Cup continues unabated; days ago the Guardian reported 185 Nepalese workers had died in Qatar in 2013. In the rush to ready stadiums for the opening of the World Cup in Brazil on June 12, reports are circulating of construction firms suddenly recruiting foreign workers with similarly minimal consideration for their welfare. Strangely, however, next to nothing has been said at home and abroad of the potential for widespread abuse of migrant workers preparing a World Cup sooner in time than Qatar, that of Russia 2018.

Last summer, and with the barest of coverage by the Russian media, a law on preparations for the 2017 Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup was passed by the Russian parliament, including amendments to several federal legislative acts. On the face of it, such legislation is commonly demanded of host nations of major sporting events, including the World Cup, with provisions on broadcasting rights, copyright infringement, ticket sales and any number of tax breaks for FIFA and its commercial partners. But the Russian example goes one step further, suspending sections of the Labour Code of the Russian Federation, the most important piece of Russian employment legislation. The act almost eliminates government oversight of the employment of foreign workers on World Cup-related projects, dramatically liberalises procedures for their entry into the country and removes minimal guarantees on long hours, overtime and leave, thus also contravening the country’s international legal obligations. With four years to go, the scope for exploitation of foreign, and also Russian workers, building World Cup infrastructure is immense.

A more immediate and analogous precedent for the Russian World Cup is the Winter Olympic Games, opening this Friday. A recent Human Rights Watch report detailed a number of abuses suffered by migrant workers on Sochi construction projects, including failure to pay full or any wages on time, employers withholding workers’ identity documents, excessive working hours, reduced leave and overcrowded housing. There are credible reports of workers raising these issues with their employers and subsequently being deported by the police. Estimating the number of workers who would have been vulnerable to such abuses is a difficult exercise, the Federal Migration Service chief admitting last year that 16,000 registered and around 50,000 unregistered foreign workers had been involved in construction projects in Sochi. According to the Sochi bureau of the Migration and Law Network, an NGO, workers on Olympic infrastructure sites are still owed somewhere between 35 and 40 million roubles (roughly 1 million US dollars).

Not only was the legislation for the 2018 World Cup adopted with relatively little scrutiny; its very enactment violated special legislative procedures. As specified in the Labour Code, a law introducing  changes to socio-labour relations must initially be approved by a three-party committee including representatives of trade unions, employer associations and the federal government, prior to any parliamentary discussion. No such committee was ever convened for Law 108-F3.  A few of the country’s leading trade unions scrambled to make statements denouncing various provisions only four months after the bill was passed, as did the Secretary General of the International Trade Union Confederation.  And while mention of the 2018 World Cup has recently only been consigned to racist abuse of renowned footballers by sections of the Russian terraces, as has also largely been the case of Qatar, the issue of players’ safety and welfare, whether or not in the sweltering Gulf heat, has trumped the plight of the nameless thousands of workers bound to prepare the arenas for their sporting glories.

Now for a closer look at the law. Article 9 concerns the status of foreign and stateless workers (from now on I shall only refer to foreign workers) involved in World Cup-related projects. It firstly states that as of the enactment of the law last summer until the end of 2018, neither FIFA, its contractors, subsidiaries or confederations, the Russian Football Association, other national football associations, the 2018 World Cup Organising Committee and its subsidiaries, will need to seek permission for hiring foreign workers for their projects. Furthermore, these entities are exempt from having to notify the regional law enforcement, migration, employment and tax authorities of the foreign workers’ employment, arrival at their place of work or residence, let alone termination of employment. Foreign workers involved in the World Cup preparations are allowed to work in the Russian Federation without a work permit, no quota on work permits or entry invitations into the country for such workers is to be issued and the government reserves the right to establish an accelerated and simplified procedure for delivering them temporary residence and work permits, as well as entry invitations. The provisions of Article 9 equally apply for foreign nationals volunteering in preparation for or during the ‘events’ of 2017 and 2018, as stated in Article 10.

But what exactly is a FIFA contractor? Article 2 defines it as a legal entity or individual with whom FIFA or a subsidiary of FIFA has a contractual relationship. It further states that the provisions of the law are likewise applicable for the contractors’ subsidiaries, as well as the subsidiaries of subcontractors. To put this into context, FIFA’s commercial partners and contractors are responsible for an array of duties such as stadium construction, broadcasting, licensing, event organisation and information, sponsorship and security, to name a few. Once you begin to consider that each partner or contractor relies on its own suppliers and sub-contractors, providing any imaginable service such as security, construction, cleaning, catering, manufacturing, advertising or servicing of equipment and facilities, you realise how easily dangerous provisions such as Article 9 may be exploited for any World Cup-related project, no matter how remotely linked in reality.

And not only Article 9. Article 11 strips away several basic labour rights, enshrined in the country’s Labour Code, both for foreign and Russian workers involved in preparations for the World Cup. It firstly gives any of the aforementioned employers the right to set long working hours. Secondly, it states that working duties and night-time pay for workers are to be set either by means of a collective agreement, local regulation or employment contract, and that Article 154 of the Labour Code (whereby every hour of night-time work is paid at a higher rate than under normal day-time circumstances) does not apply for workers on World Cup-related projects. Moreover, employment and payment on weekends and public holidays is also to be established by a collective agreement, local regulation or employment contract, and neither Articles 113 (work on weekends and public holidays is forbidden unless the employee has in advance provided written consent for unforeseeable circumstances, or in the case of a catastrophe or state emergency) and 153 (work on weekends or public holidays is remunerated by at least twice as much as during a standard working day) in the Labour Code apply. With regards to overtime, Article 152 of the Labour Code, stating that the first two hours  are remunerated one and a half times more than normal pay, and the following hours by at least twice as much, is likewise ineffective during World Cup preparations. Lastly, paid leave for workers is to be decided annually in accordance with a holiday schedule approved by the employer, and on the basis of his own operational plans. The implications of the entire article are fairly clear; workers’ rights shall be at the mercy of their employers’ aims, subject to no federal oversight nor safeguarded by any appropriate federal legislation setting minimal working standards. Russian trade unions have said its content also violates Article 2 of the European Social Charter, concerning the right to just conditions of work, a Council of Europe treaty to which Russia is a party.

According to estimates provided by the Labour Confederation of Russia, by October of last year at least two workers in Kazan and three in St Petersburg had died on stadium construction sites, and fifty sub-contractors fined in Kazan for not maintaining safety standards. This year sees preparations for the 2018 World Cup  go into overdrive, Moscow’s Spartak FC Arena set to open this summer, work continuing at St. Petersburg’s Krestovsky Island and beginning on eight other stadia, construction starting from scratch in Volgograd, Yekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk and Rostov-on-Don. Pressure on Qatar may be beginning to yield results, despite the deplorable death toll; the organisers of the 2022 World Cup must provide a ‘detailed report’ by next week, as apparently demanded by FIFA, to explain how conditions for migrant workers will improve. Pressure on Sochi over its treatment of migrant workers came far too late and has been eclipsed by other political matters.  We cannot afford to look the other way for the 2018 World Cup, not least when preparations for it are now accelerating and the machinery for the mass exploitation of its workers is there to be seen.

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